King Midas is a preening billionaire in a business suit who has no patience for his playful daughter ("Take it inside!" he barks) until he accidentally turns her into a solid-gold accessory. Phaeton, sporting sunglasses and yellow swimming trunks, relaxes on a raft as he confides to a therapist his troubled relationship with his father, who happens to be the Sun. Myrrha, a girl so infected by the goddess of love that she commits incest with her father, gets her comeuppance by literally melting away--her body sinking out of sight, into the pool of water that takes up most of the stage.
Everybody gets into the pool at one point or another in Mary Zimmerman's entrancing theater piece Metamorphoses. But somehow it's the audience that feels most refreshed. This off-Broadway show--which opened at Manhattan's Second Stage Theatre in October and has been such a hit that it's planning a move to Broadway in February--is theater as primal as it is charming. Zimmerman likes to say the playwright and audience are "collaborating in a dream," and she has brought some of humanity's oldest dreams--Greek myths--to shimmering life.
Since Sept. 11, the New York theater has been under a lot of pressure to prove its relevance. Some Broadway shows, like Noises Off and Mamma Mia!, have done their bit for the war effort by offering escape: innocent laughs or peppy songs. Metamorphoses takes a tougher, more rewarding tack. It doesn't turn away from human troubles and tragedy; it looks for their larger meaning, their place in the divine scheme, the way they can lead to understanding, acceptance and (with luck) redemption. They also make for great stories. Like Julie Taymor's The Lion King, Metamorphoses is avant-garde theater at its most vital and ingratiating. Disney, take note.
Zimmerman is not just a delightful storyteller; she's a visionary designer of stage space and actors' movement. The action in Metamorphoses is structured around a large wading pool, and the stage devices are so elegantly simple, they provoke a smile even as they heighten the drama. When God creates light, an actor lights a cigarette; for a fatal storm at sea, a bare-chested thug tosses a bucket of water at the captain and wrestles him into submission in the water. Some stories are enacted, others narrated; still others are a deft mix of the two. A few good-natured modernisms are sprinkled in, but they never interfere with the seriousness and earnest romanticism of these tales of love and loss.
"Unfortunately," says Phaeton's therapist, "the mythic side of man is given short shrift these days. He can no longer create fables." A professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, Zimmerman, 41, has been creating stage fables for years from her base in Chicago, just off the radar screen of the East Coast tastemakers.
She chooses classic texts, from The Arabian Nights to the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, transforming them with her lyrical, low-tech theatricality, spiced with dollops of dance, mime and performance art. (She typically starts rehearsals with no script, writing it at home as she sees it performed.) Her version of Homer's Odyssey is a 3 1/2-hour epic constructed of chairs, poles, bags of sand and shadow play. In The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci actors perform excerpts from the Renaissance genius's scientific writings while cavorting on a floor-to-ceiling set of wooden cabinets.