Myths: An early form of science

Posted: Thursday, September 02, 2004

No one can say precisely when the stories contained in "Metamorphoses" were first written. The Roman poet Ovid compiled them around 3 B.C., at which point they were already well-shrouded in oral folklore.

The tale of King Midas and his golden greed, for example, may stretch back to 725 B.C. Whatever the case, these stories could be considered, as the play itself says, "our earliest form of science." Ovid modernized them for his Roman audience. Storytellers and academics have adapted them through the years. And Mary Zimmerman created her own version of "Metamorphoses," which her Looking Glass Theatre Company premiered in Chicago in 1998, before it toured the country.

Perseverance Theatre's own take on "Metamorphoses," the debut of the 2004-05 season, is faithful to Zimmerman's text.

Director Dave Hunsaker has not changed any of the dialogue. He and set designer Art Rotch have created a new framework - a library - around the play's 17,000-gallon tank swimming pool. The myths take place in the water, which acts as a vessel for each story's transformation metaphor. The characters swim, sail, drown, drink and make love in the pool.

"The stories raise some interesting questions about the nature of life and love and the soul, and of transformation," said Hun-saker, who saw Zimmerman's version on Broadway."

"The set was very simple in New York," he said. "It was basically just a very elegant pool with a deck running around it, and an upper area where the gods would appear. We were sort of interested in grounding it. The play seems to be about revival and the old forgotten stories, and the idea of a library appeals to that."

"Metamorphoses" opens Friday, Sept. 3, and runs through Sept. 26. For a complete schedule, refer to page 2, visit or call 364-2421. If you go, dress lightly. The 92-degree pool makes the theater humid, and though electric fans do their part to cool the space, it's still warm.

The actors didn't jump in the Perseverance pool until early August. They began rehearsals by taping an outline of the pool layout in a Montessori classroom in the Arcticorp Building. One of their first water rehearsals was at the Aspen Hotel pool.

"None of us had any idea if you could hear cues underwater or if the actors would be completely blind," Hunsaker said. "There were all kinds of spacial problems. How to get in and out. How not to splash the water over the sides. There are a lot of obstacles, and one thing I didn't anticipate is that they can propel themselves, instead of swimming, by pulling themselves along on the studs in the pool."

The 10 actors in the play are arranged in an ensemble cast, which requires them to occasionally appear through a trap door, moments after they've drowned in the 4-foot-6-inch deep pool in different garb. All of the actors were familiar with some of the myths. But even Hunsaker didn't know of some of Ovid's more obscure tales: the insatiable Erysichthon and his battle with Hunger; the lustful Myrrha and her incestuous pining for her father, Cinyras.

"I started reading Greek mythology when I was 12, and like a lot of people, there were a couple that were new to me," said actress Eliza Soule. "These are myths that we've based our psychology and philosophy on. So the characters are coming together to remind the audience that these stories are still important."

"There seems to be an interesting way of weaving comedic stuff with tragic stuff, and a very modern vernacular with classical lyrics," Hunsaker said. "Even in the middle of a story, there will be something preposterous and goofy. At the same time, you get these anachronistic characters that could be contemporary American people juxtaposed against gods and goddesses who are speaking in a classical way."

Of the myths in Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses," eight were from Ovid. One more, the tale of Eros and Psyche, appeared as the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius' novel "The Golden Ass."

Hunsaker has added a few more ancient stories. Act Two begins with a brief look at Narcissus, sobbing by the water. There's a quick interlude with Hylas, the Argonaut who attempted to steal water from the Water Nymph's sacred pool. Some other ancient characters, including Arachne the weaver, Sisyphus and his boulder and the heartbroken, childless Niobe, appear fleetingly as Orpheus and Eurydice descend into Hades at the end of Act One.

The idea of transformation, or the desire to change one's self, ties the story together. That made the play a popular ticket when it premiered in New York, just days after the 9/11 attacks.

"Change is inevitable, and something that we have to get used to in general," Soule said. "But I would say that the play shows that there are some characters that push the idea of transformation too far. Midas wants pretty huge change (for everything he touches to turn to gold) and it doesn't work out. Some of the other characters want to be changed for good reasons."

Megan Sherman - Woman by the Water, Alcyone, Ceres, Persephone, Pomona, the Head Nymph of the Spring; Eliza Soule - Scientist, Laundress, Erysichthon's Mother, Pandora, Nurse, Therapist; Roald Simonson - Zeus, Poseidon's Henchman, Erysichthon, Cinyras, Apollo; Corlé LaForce - Laundress, Sailor, Lucina, Spirit of the Tree, Eurydice, Nymph, Q, Baucis; Chelsea Rohweder - Laundress, Aphrodite, Oread, Niobe, Nymph, Psyche; Glenn Merrill - Midas, Sailor, Morpheus, Tantalus; Lily Lalanya Hudson - Midas' Daughter, Iris, Hunger, Arachne, Myrrha, Nymph; Ishmael Hope - Midas' Servant, Ceyx, Orpheus, Hylas, A, Philemon; Ryan Conarro - Silenus, Sailor, Slave-trader, Hades, Narcissus, Phaeton, Eros; Lucas Hoiland - Bacchus, Poseidon, Sysiphus, Hermes, Vertumnus; Bob Banghart - Musician; Patrick Murphy - Musician.

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