Legendary

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I saw Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses right after it transferred to Broadway in 2002, after a much-heralded off-Broadway run that began two days after the September 11 attacks. It was one of the highlights of my theatergoing life till that point – Zimmerman’s luminous yet bittersweet adaptation of Greek myths that dealt with death, separation, loss, and transgression bowled me over, and left me sobbing like the New Yorkers sitting around me (seeing tears in a New York theater audience was, and still is, as surprising as seeing tears in a, well, crocodile). It was also the first show that I saw that had a swimming pool as part of the performance space, and I thought then, wow, who would have ever thought to stage a play in a pool? In the ten years since, I’ve seen so many more plays with pools; I’ve seen so many more plays, period, so I’ve become as I’d like to believe a jaded, savvy, not-easily-impressed theatergoer.  So when I went to see Zimmerman’s re-staging of Metamorphoses which opened the 25th season of  Lookingglass Theater (where she is an ensemble member), with the original design team and with a cast comprised of many of the original Chicago and Broadway cast members, I was a little apprehensive: would this play affect the older, wiser, more skeptical, more self-possessed Francis differently?  Should I just have left it well enough alone as a fond, burnished memory of my cultural upbringing? Since 2002, I have had lots of life changes as well, including the significant life-marking loss of my Mom, my greatest influence and cheerleader, in 2006, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that seeing Metamorphoses this time around was actually a more illuminating and, to a certain extent, gut-wrenching experience.  It was also a more optimistic one.  Like all great theater, Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses puts up a clear-eyed mirror to your own life – with age and experience, its reflections and reverberations become richer and more profound.

Metamorphoses is comprised of various Greek myths from King Midas’ turning everything he touches into gold, including his daughter, to the oft-adapted tragic love story of Orpheus and Eurydice. These legends involve some form of physical and emotional change so the use of water as a central metaphor is apt, as it is a symbol of transformation for many cultures, from Greek to Indian to Judeo-Christian. Set designer Dan Ostling’s pool still comes across like it did to me ten years ago- both inviting and intimidating.  But the pool is only one design element, and actually the most elaborate one.  Zimmerman and her genius design team (in addition to Ostling, Mara Blumenfeld for costumes, T.J. Gerckens for lights, Willie Schwarz for music, and Andre Pluess for sound) weave enthralling theatrical magic, most of the time in the simplest of terms whether through tealights floating in the darkness to breathtaking, ever-changing lighting cues and shades (spanning a range from burnt red to blazing yellow to melancholy blue) to the haunting, langorous strike of a ceremonial bell to mournful musical underscoring.  The play’s overall design is minimalist but never unsatisfying, all the better to highlight the beauty of  Zimmerman’s incomparable storytelling.

And these stories are acted by a fiercely committed ensemble, many of whom I saw on Broadway a decade ago.  Props to everyone for being submerged every night in a pool of water and rushing about in wet costumes, but more impressively, the cast is still up to the physical demands of the show. Anjali Bhimani, ten years later, is still thrillingly pliable as Hunger attached to the desperately flailing muscular body of Chris Kipiniak’s Erysichthon; Louise Lamson’s Alcyon is still devastating as she literally tries to drown her sorrows after hearing of Ceyx’s death. More than the physicality, the performances are wonderfully nuanced –  in a consistently excellent ensemble, Lamson’s grieving Alcyon is a standout, as are Raymond Fox’s Midas who transforms from greedy, cold-hearted businessman to wounded, guilt-ridden father; Bhimani’s Myrrha, who delicately calibrates sympathy and repulsion as a daughter in love with her father; and new cast member Usman Ally’s Orpheus, whose palpable grief at losing his beloved Eurydice creates echoes of the grief I, and the rest of the audience members, have known.

When I originally saw the play in early 2002, New York and the country were still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, so for me the overarching sadness of the myths prevailed. And these stories are painfully heartbreaking, and they still are in this remount.  But some of the stories, particularly the last couple of ones and the triumphant ending, are also optimistic and redemptive.  In 2002, Metamorphoses was theater as true catharsis, an audience grieving for its losses, mired in its confusion, questioning as to whether they, their city and their country could fully recover. In the ten years hence, we have, for the most part, recovered from what seemed like the unrecoverable.  There are, to be sure, new griefs and terrors and threats, but the play for me now stands for the unbreakable nature of spirit and will. And that is why, for me, Metamorphoses in 2012 is more relevant theatergoing than in the early 2000s. It is quite simply one of the greatest contributions of Chicago theater to American theater.

You are a fool if you don’t rush out to get tickets to this singular theatrical event. And I don’t suffer fools.  Metamorphoses runs until November 18 at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave.

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One Response to “Legendary”

  1. Any Given Sunday Says:

    [...] to that list celebrated Chicago theater directors revisiting their earlier works. In 2002, I saw Mary Zimmermann’s Metamorphoses, and as I said in a previous post, this year’s Lookingglass remount is still thrilling to me ten [...]

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