I'm told the production of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses that opened a couple years ago Off-Broadway in New York was quite a spectacle. Legend has it that Zimmerman's adaptation of some of Ovid's best tales incorporated a magical set with a rectangular pool built right into the stage. Even though the pool was only a few inches deep, the characters floated across it, and ships were destroyed in storms on the open water.
The set also included a changing sky, portals to the heavens and other highly innovative elements. The production's overwhelming success combined this visual poetry with pitch perfect ensemble acting and a funny, tragic script that cleverly integrated some of Ovid's most profound tales into a stunning show.
Zimmerman's play had several successful runs in other cities as well. My own first experience of the play comes with a production directed by Denise Schultz that just opened at UNM's Theatre X. I really wanted to like this show, but I have to say I'm disappointed.
Part of the problem is a marked lack of visual flair. For one thing, there is no pool of water here, just a rectangular space filled with shimmering fabric that's meant to signify water. This alone, of course, isn't much of a problem.
The stage runs down the middle of the theater with long rows of seats on both sides. Schultz incorporates a series of masks fixed on metal rods for the characters of the gods. Many of these look kind of chintzy. More importantly, they don't work well with this staging largely because one part of the audience is often looking at the back of the mask.
Some visual elements are effective. I liked the silky red demonic figures who torment Orpheus (Joshua Hunt) on his trip down to Hades to rescue his sweetie, Eurydice (Sara Escobedo), from the bowels of death. Mainly, though, the choreography and use of props seems haphazard and unfocussed. The three tall ladders that are supposed to connect the divine plane with our mortal Earth aren't used to particularly dramatic effect. In general, I didn't get the feeling that the show is the product of a consistent, sustained directorial vision.
The acting is also kind of rough. The UNM undergraduates who make up the cast put in tepid performances that fail to milk the poetic language of the script or the dramatic potential of Ovid's stories. Likewise, much of Zimmerman's comedic bits fall flat due to poor delivery.
Many minor instances of thespian sloppiness occur throughout. One example is when King Midas—played fairly well by Rafael Gallegos, who puts in one of the better performances of the evening—asks the gods to give him the ability to transform everything he touches to gold. ("Bad idea!" shouts one of the gods.) When he goes to hug his daughter, of course, she immediately turns to solid gold. The actress who plays this part, unfortunately, continues to flop around a bit, destroying the necessary illusion that she's changed into a metallic sculpture. Little flaws like this might seem trivial, but they can really tarnish a scene, and there are just too many of them to ignore.
All of this is a shame, because I sensed inklings of the brilliance of Zimmerman's script throughout the performance, but these inklings rarely translated into solid scenes. Ovid's tales deserve a modern audience because they're timeless. They tap into crucial elements of our psyche (apologies for the pun) that haven't changed a smidgen since classical times.
Basically, this production looks like an early rehearsal. I'm sure Schultz is a talented director and that many of these young performers could be excellent actors on the cusp of long and successful careers in the theater. Unfortunately, this production lacks polish. It desperately needs tightening at all levels. Until that happens you'd be better off digging up a copy of Ted Hughes' fantastic, if somewhat idiosyncratic, Tales of Ovid, a translation of some of the best stories from the great Roman poet's original Metamorphoses. Reading that book is a truly life-changing experience.