Chicago Theater Review: METAMORPHOSES (Lookingglass Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 1, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


It took Ovidius Naso, a 1st century Roman poet, to do full justice to Greek myths. Metamorphoses assembled a panoply of gods, heroes and mortals into 15 books of Latin hexameter; the legends cover everything from the creation of the world out of chaos to the deification of Caesar and reign of Augustus. Unlike Shakespeare’s era, they’re no longer mandatory reading—reason enough to applaud Mary Zimmerman’s once and future scenic wonders. Zimmerman long ago perfected dazzling theatrical metamorphoses in The Arabian Nights, Mirror of the Invisible World, and Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. As Lookingglass Theatre Company has confirmed before, Zimmerman couldn’t ask for a more inevitable partner than Ovid.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of METAMORPHOSES at Lookingglass in Chicago

For a play called Metamorphoses there have been few changes across so many revivals, touring and returning. But the transitions have been smoothed out and the tonal shifts—from sarcastic to sincere—nicely mediated. Transforming the black box stage in Lookingglass’ water-pumping station into a reflecting pool, Zimmerman employs the element to depict the fluidity of Ovid’s protean alterations: Here the gods—and a few lucky or miserable mortals—morph into anything but themselves: Seabirds, interwoven trees or human tears. (Interestingly, Lookingglass’ other elemental offering The Great Fire—its inside story of the Great Chicago Fire—embraced water’s opposite.)

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of METAMORPHOSES at Lookingglass in Chicago

Along with the Zen-like pool, Daniel Ostling’s patented set includes a cloudscape from which the gods descend, imposing double doors and an elegant electrolier. Delicately lit by T. J. Gerckens, the pool changes can be irreverently anachronistic (King Midas is a selfish yup, Apollo’s son Phaeton a preppie brat, and Hades is conjured up by a song from Styx), delicately mocking (Sleep is shown with giant Z’s springing from his head), unashamedly romantic (Baucis and Philemon, perfect selfless lovers, become trees amid a sea of floating candles), and even wordless (self-doting Narcissus is instantly replaced by his plant).

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of METAMORPHOSES at Lookingglass in Chicago

Literally plunging into their storytelling, the perfectly interwoven ten-person cast gamely splash, float, drown, and paddle as they emote between ripples. The ensemble, some of whom appeared in the original Metamorphoses, change roles as effortlessly as slipping off a toga. With major roles in parentheses, they are Anjali Bhimani (Myrrha), Lawrence E. DiStasi (Hermes), Marilyn Dodds Frank (Therapist), Raymond Fox (Midas), Douglas Hara (Phaeton), Chris Kipiniak (Erysichthon), Louise Lamson (Alcyone), Anne Fogarty (Aphrodite), Usman Ally (Orpheus), and Lauren Orkus (Eurydice).

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of METAMORPHOSES at Lookingglass in ChicagoAmong many delights, the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is told twice: In Ovid’s familiar version the former loses his wife to hell from curiosity or doubt; Rilke’s retelling imagines Eurydice so full of death that she can’t see her husband’s love.

The loveliest legend entwines Eros (passion) and Psyche (soul) in a tale that celebrates the virtue of love’s blindness. Love’s sacrifices are symbolized by Alcyon’s love for her drowned Ceyx; it changed them into kingfishers and created the seven “halcyon days” around the winter solstice. Zimmerman illustrates it with a toy trireme, synchronized oars and a veritable splashfest as the lovers fight fate.

A curiously lesbo-erotic legend tells how Myrrha, daughter of the king of Cyprus, was loved by Aphrodite; she spurned her and was forced into incest with her father. Zimmerman depicts the father’s exposure with all the fright of Oedipus’ unmasking. In another scenic shocker, a doubter of the gods is punished as the literally clinging personification of Hunger crushes him into starvation.

A revival that justifies itself from the first minute on, Zimmerman’s literally fluid spellbinding begins and ends with the cautionary tale of Midas’ terrible touch. We forget that his curse was cured: A magical redemption returned his daughter from gold to flesh. So, Prospero-like, Zimmerman ends her enchantment by destroying her power to shift shapes. Reluctantly, we return to our too too solid flesh, our last vision being that of candlelit toy boats floating off like tributes to the dead.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of METAMORPHOSES at Lookingglass in Chicago

photos by Liz Lauren

Lookingglass Theatre Company
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
ends on Nov. 18, 2012 EXTENDED to January 6, 2020
for tickets, call 312.337.0665 or visit Lookingglass

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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