Of gods and men

Of gods and men

By Jordan Wright

At Arena Stage’s Mead Center, Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” unfolds on a stage transformed into a giant central pool.  

Ornamented by a single crystal chandelier, the shallow body of water is surrounded by wooden decking, which the actors walk, run, skip and crawl on when not actually in the water, faux swimming, having sex or merely drowning. By my count there are 11 separate stories from David Slavitt’s translation of Ovid’s first-century masterpiece, the Latin poet’s attempt at describing the history of the world — a weighty proposition with the only constant being change.

Most of the vignettes are the familiar cautionary tales of greed, lust, incest … oh, let’s just say the seven deadly sins and call it a day. The actors play multiple parts in a whirlwind of clever costume changes that serve to clarify segues to the next story. It’s a helpful tactic since the program makes no attempt to list the multiple roles each actor portrays, nor the individual vignettes.

There’s a lot to be said for brevity when it comes to complex themes of love and loss, and in these stories, the objective is clear. In each piece we meet the hapless cast of characters and learn of the hot mess they’ve gotten themselves into, usually expressed by the muse or a god situated slightly off stage.

The frailties and passions of mere mortals are highlighted, while the gods — busy spewing their edicts and curses — are fodder for ridicule. Drum roll, please. Et voila! The moral of the story is revealed for all time, sometimes after a vision quest.

The play begins with Zeus explaining the creation of the world: birds, fish, game, paradise — brief pause — and man was born. The choice of Midas as the opening myth is a good one since pretty much everyone knows the tale of the greedy king who wished everything he touched turn to gold.

Ashleigh Lathrop plays his devoted daughter. The sylphlike Lathrop is captivating. When Midas explains his desire for gold — “It’s all for the family,” he insists — Bacchus sends his emissary in a leopard loincloth, a bottle of wine secured in a paper bag.

“What is the secret to eternal life?” Midas inquires. When the drunken Selinus, pointing to his head, replies, “It’s here.” — it’s a no-brainer.

But Midas, not one for subtleties, demands his wish be granted, and Bacchus complies. In a magnificent scene, his daughter, clad in a white lace dress, runs through the water to her father, wrapping her legs around his waist. As she becomes the solid gold he wished for, she is bathed in a golden beam of light.

Lighting designer T. J. Gerckens and set designer Daniel Ostling have crucial tasks since there are no set changes and no curtains to draw in this theater-in-the-round, or in this case, rectangular. Along with sound designer Andre Pluess, there is a great deal of ambiance and suggestion to support the dialogue.

In another of Zimmerman’s interpretations, Phaeton, son of the sun god Apollo, floats on a raft in bright yellow swim trunks and wraparound Oakley’s — a portrait of the ne’er-do-well scion asking for the keys to his dad’s car. To which Apollo responds tongue-in-cheek, “Don’t fly too high!”

In this piece an analyst sits off to the side of the pool and opines, “Myths are the earliest form of science, and dreams are private myths.” It is the most revealing moment in the play as to the dramaturge’s motivation, and unfortunately, we don’t hear it until the ninth story. One wonders if the next line is not autobiographical as the analyst declares, “It is impossible to speak of enigmatic things — both privately and publicly.”

“Metamorphoses” shows that it is possible to speak of enigmatic things when they are brilliantly interpreted and directed as well as passionately performed by the entire ensemble.

“Metamorphoses” runs at the Arena Stage through Sunday. For tickets and information, call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.