Mary Zimmerman is a professor at Northwestern University, and her show Metamorphoses had its genesis as an academic exercise there nearly two decades ago.
But if you let that scare you away from Arena Stage’s exquisite new production, you’ll miss out on some of the finest theater around. The show long ago made the transformative leap from college to Broadway, education to entertainment. It is now incredibly sophisticated and stylish – downright magical – in the way it retells stories from classic mythology. There’s nothing in the least pedantic about it.
Metamorphoses is the show that Zimmerman has become best known for, having garnered her a Tony as Best Director in 2002. But it’s very much of a piece with her adaptation of Arabian Nights, which Arena staged in 2011. (Both shows were first produced by Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre, Zimmerman’s theatrical home base.) Certainly anyone who took in that magic carpet ride of a show, with its lyrical retelling of Scheherazade’s classic stories, should make haste planning a return trip to Arena’s in-the-round Fichandler stage.
For Metamorphoses, Zimmerman and her regular set designer Daniel Ostling have converted the stage to include a large pool, since the show focuses on the myths and parables first told by the Roman poet Ovid, most of them involving water in some fashion or another. The pool sometimes stands in for rough seas, and, yes, patrons near the perimeter may get wet from the splashing. (Arena considerately provides them with splash guards.) But neither the wayward water nor Mara Blumenfeld’s ever-tactful costumes detract from the classic tales, as Constellation Theatre Company’s romping production of Metamorphoses sometimes did last year.
Zimmerman and her team bring these tales to life as vividly and as fantastically as possible. T.J. Gerckens’s lights are always just the right shade of transfixing and transporting; Willy Schwarz’s original incidental music is mostly dreamy, never jarring; and Blumenfeld fits everyone in appropriate, often enchanting attire – most notably the goddess of the rainbow, who comes decked out in a sheer dress covered in glittering lights.