Murky Myths

Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2004

Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses" is an adaptation of millenia-old myths, compiled by the Roman poet Ovid in 8 A.D., that sought to explain man's emotions, actions and environment.

It's a story about the importance of stories, and therefore, the stories themselves - these fantastic, imaginative fables - should always be preeminent.

That isn't always the case in Zimmerman's script, as directed by Dave Hunsaker and presented by Perseverance Theatre through Sept. 26. It attempts to connect nine myths and earns inconsistent results.

The highlight of the play is the story of land and love-lorn Alcyone (Megan Sherman) and her man, the sailor Ceyx (Ishmael Hope). He leaves to visit an oracle. She, pleading, has premonitions of his death. He drowns, seized from his vessel by the gods in a terrible storm. She wanders the shore with a lantern, land- and love-lorn, after cruel Morpheus delivers a deadly dream.

Sherman, from Haines and new to the Perseverance scene, could easily go overboard, but her delusion is neither campy nor overly melodramatic. Hope seems perfectly comfortable in the water. He drowns slowly and convincingly, as if there's no life in his limbs, and it adds wonderfully to the total heartbreak. The sum effect is not unlike being chopped in two.

Phaeton's (Ryan Conarro) whimsical confession to a therapist is refreshing comic relief in the midst of Act Two. His tale's conclusion - the Earth on fire - is well thought-out visually.

Throughout the play, the action in the water is always the most captivating. Poseidon (Lucas Hoiland) and his henchman (Roald Simonson) are truly terrifying when they suddenly emerge from the sea to grab Ceyx's crew, and later, Erysichthon's mother (Eliza Soule). Soule's quick transformation into the mother's younger self is also well done, as is the sexy nymphs' seduction of Hylas, the wayward Argonaut.

The set - a flooded library as created with a 17,000-gallon swimming pool - is ambitious and beautiful. The top of the first floor of the library can be seen under the platforms, and this detail is nicely done.

The water should be used more, but is mostly an afterthought in the second half of Act Two. The story of Eros and Psyche, in particular, could be better explored.

As for the score, Bob Banghart and Patrick Murphy are certainly talented musicians, but their tunes, as commissioned by Hunsaker, are mis-used. The music is sneaky, snarky and Bohemian, even when the characters shouldn't be. Are they supposed to be? What mood are the characters trying to achieve? It's confusing.

Lily Hudson is great in all of her roles, in particular as the hyperactive young daughter of Midas, and Hunger - the ravenous spoil of Erysichthon. One observer said of her take as Hunger, "She was like Gollum," (the hobgoblin shapeshifter of Lord of the Rings).

Hudson's Myrrha is good as well, but that story is the most puzzling part of the play.

The story of Pomona (a wood nymph with no discernible interest in love) and Vertumnus (the shapeshifter who loves her) is framed around the story of Myrrha (a young girl overwhelmed with lust for her father).

Vertumnus (Hoiland) disguises himself as an old hag and wins Pomona's (Sherman) attention with the promise of a story. He proceeds to tell her about Myrrha, a lonely daughter overwhelmed with lust for her father, Cinyras. She tries to hang herself, but a maid prevents her, then devises a way for Myrrha to trick Cinyras into a sexual rendezvous. After several meetings, he discovers her identity. He chases her away, she flees and she prays for atonement.

The moral itself (a cautionary one about forbidden love) isn't enough to woo Pomona. But for some reason, she lets down her guard and accepts Vertumnus as her lover.

It seems to be a corruption of Ovid's original myth. In that, Vertumnus tells Pomona the story of Anaxarete, a young woman who rejects the advances of Iphis until he kills himself.

The lesson, as originally written by Ovid, is that "if the tree stood alone, and had no vine clinging to it, it would have nothing to attract or offer us but its useless leaves." Pomona begins to see that she should be open to love.

What is the lesson from Zimmerman? Why is a tale about incest a reasonable substitute? The allegory, if there is one, is creepy and baffling.

The score is also too much. Myrrha's story is tragedy, and as it's presented here, it just seems dirty. The scene when Cinyras takes off his blindfold and discovers Myrrha's identity should be one of the most powerful moments of the entire play. But it's clumsy and obscured. Incest is not funny, so why is the audience giggling?

Another disappointment is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Orpheus is a virtuoso player of the lyre, so brilliant that the gods marvel. He marries Eurydice, but on the day of their union she steps on a snake, receives a lethal bite and falls into the underworld. Orpheus descends to hell and plays his lyre so well that Persephone and Hades relent. He can have his love back if he can march back to Earth without once looking back at her, a step behind.

Of course, Orpheus must turn. It's powerful as a single moment, where his heart over-rules his will.

Here, it's jumbled and repetitive, as Zimmerman combines Ovid with German author Rainer Maria Rilke's version of the myth. Orpheus (Hope) turns back and looks at Eurydice (Corlé LaForce) again and again, as the play tries to make some sort of statement about those in love being doomed to repeat their mistakes.

Hunsaker's recreation of hell is perversely spooky, but Orpheus' big moment loses its dramatic effectiveness, and the presentation becomes overwrought.

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