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Review: “Metamorphoses” takes smart, sexy look at myth, with water as the main star

Travis Smith and Tess Malis Kincaid in (Photo by Greg Mooney)
Travis Smith and Tess Malis Kincaid in "Metamorphoses." (Photo by Greg Mooney)
Travis Smith and Tess Malis Kincaid in “Metamorphoses.” (Photo by Greg Mooney)

When it’s summer, most Atlantans want nothing more than to hang around the pool. The crew at Georgia Shakespeare will certainly be doing their share of that this summer, but it’s not that they’re slacking off. They’ve simply brought the pool onstage for another run of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” through July 21. The dramatic retelling of tales from Ovid famously uses a large standing pool of water as the primary feature of its set.

As Atlanta audiences saw when the company did the show in 2006 and again in 2007, it’s a gorgeous, smart, funny, sexy production. Those who haven’t seen it yet will certainly want to catch it this time around. Georgia Shakespeare has assembled a cast of Atlanta theater Olympians for this run, including award-winning veterans Chris Kayser, Carolyn Cook and Tess Malis Kincaid.

Each member of the 10-person cast plays multiple roles in these tales of gods and mortals. From straightforward and familiar stories like that of Midas to lesser-known ones, and even a tale within a tale, the actors dive into the ensemble piece and its most challenging task: making characters seem broadly mythic but also understandable, timeless but also accessible to modern audiences.

Transformation is, of course, the theme and literal denouement of the stories from Ovid, and the pool itself changes its role from tale to tale: it’s a river where women wash clothes, then it’s the sea, the River Styx, a literal swimming pool and a redemptive pool of healing water at the far end of the world.

Zimmerman clearly has a profound admiration for and connection to myth. “Myths are public dreams,” an actor narrates at one point, and it’s this aspect that most interests Zimmerman. She explores a myth’s ability to make us understand that our privately held, often chaotic fears, dreams, hopes, desires and disgraces are actually commonly shared.

To that end, mythic characters are occasionally given a modern spin: Midas is a modern capitalist, Erysichthon is a developer, Phaeton is the disaffected son of an emotionally distant father. It works well, but it can occasionally devolve into a sort of knowing, winking awareness of modernity, even a sort of glib kitschiness, as when we see Hippomenes and Atalanta race to the tune of “Chariots of Fire.” The play also tends to overwork and repeat the drama of a character appearing in dry clothes and then having us wait for the inevitable first dipping of the trouser leg or hem into the pool, and then the subsequent drenching.

But for the most part, the sensuality, sexiness and overall fittingness of the water are a knockout. “Metamorphoses” has journeyed far since its original production by students in the drama department at Northwestern University, where Zimmerman is a professor, in 1998. It has gone on to have hundreds of productions, large and small, all around the country, including one on Broadway in 2002, where it won a Tony Award for Zimmerman.

For the most part, “Metamorphoses” remains a moving piece of theater that honors and engages with the mythic qualities of all its elements, and its return to Georgia Shakespeare is a welcome one. After all, who could resist a picnic on the lawn and a glass of wine followed by a bit of myth and a splash in the pool? That’s a winning combination if there ever was one, and it’s no wonder that Georgia Shakespeare is banking on its epic, eternal appeal.

View a conversation with Mary Zimmerman on her adaptation of “Metamorphoses” here

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