“Metamorphoses” On Broadway, A Review

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Someone should declare a moratorium on once-over-lightly, cut-and-paste adaptations on ancient texts presented as new works of dramatic literature. It’s easy to see why so many of them are churned out. The formula is easy and, judging by the rapturous critical reaction to “Metamorphoses,” it’s foolproof.

Writer/director Mary Zimmerman has mined the works of Ovid, a Roman poet who lived some 2,000 years ago and who is better known than read by today’s theater-going public, and produced a thoroughly banal gloss that produces neither insight nor reinterpretation. In retelling about a dozen tales in no discernably logical order, she has dispensed with the basics of dramaturgy (apparently another attraction of the formula). She uses the now rather threadbare techniques of Story Theater to lurch from story to story. She falls back all too often on the hackneyed device of to-the-audience narration by whichever actor seems to be handy at the moment to move the action jerkily forward or, worse, tell us what some otherwise opaque scene is all about and how we should interpret it. (“Who is that? Why is he blindfolded? Why is he naked?”) So muddled is the approach that she even has to have an actor announce that the next story will be the last. Otherwise no one would know when the brief (93 minute) piece was over.

Daniel Ostling has contributed a simple but visually stunning set that, I suspect, is largely responsible for the play’s success. It’s central feature is a rectangular pool occupying some ninety percent or more of the playing area. It ranges in depth from a few inches at the upstage end to a few feet and a good bit of the action takes place in it. Although there is no large red neon sign pointing to it and blinking “Metaphor, Metaphor, Metaphor,” one is hardly needed. Unfortunately, the pool functions as a metaphor of transformation only intermittently; most of the time it is beside the point. Still, the pool is a lot of fun and there are moments when it really works.

There is occasional humor which also helps relieve the tedium. Most of it is of the collegiate variety, relying on hip irreverance towards the ancients for its effect. But the scene in which Phaeton unburdens himself to a shrink about his parlous relationship with his long-absent father hits paydirt. Some of the humor is unintentional, as when Eros enters wearing fuzzy white wings, a blindfold, and nothing else. Less successful are the brief mimed interludes that allow the audience to feel smugly intelligent by identifying such easy to spot characters as Pandora and Narcissus.

Fortunately, Zimmerman is a better director than she is adaptor, otherwise sitting through “Metamorphoses” would be excruciating. (The brevity helps, too.) She falters on casting (many of the competent but unexeptional cast seem to have wandered in from a number of different plays) but she creates some arresting stage pictures and comes close at times to something approximating real emotion. The final story of the devoted couple who find favor with the gods and are granted their wish to die together, followed by a brief coda in which King Midas washes away the curse of the “Golden Touch,” achieve a poignancy that belies the vapidity of much of what has gone before.

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