Everybody into the pool.
And by everybody, we mean King Midas, Orpheus, Eurydice, Narcissus, Aphrodite, Eros, Psyche and last but not least, Zeus.
This cast of characters is impressive, if not downright immortal. Yet the real star of any production of “Metamorphoses” sits sloshing and gurgling center stage: a swimming pool.
“It’s right in the middle, 12 feet by 24 feet and 4 feet deep,” said Yvonne A.K. Johnson, who is directing the Spokane Civic Theatre’s Firth Chew Studio Theatre production. “It becomes the heart of the show.”
Mary Zimmerman’s acclaimed 1996 play “Metamorphoses” is a series of vignettes based on Roman and Greek myths, drawn mostly from “The Metamorphoses” by the ancient Roman poet Ovid.
The pool is used in almost every vignette, but it represents different things in different scenes. Sometimes it’s the River Styx, leading to the Underworld. Sometimes it’s the ocean. Sometimes it’s a wash basin.
At all times, it’s giant, dripping metaphor.
“Water is such a beautiful symbol,” said Johnson. “The pool is a metaphor of the title, a metaphor for change. And the change is sometimes positive and sometimes negative.”
Water can also be a giant, dripping challenge to the actors and director.
The actors have to dive right in; one dons scuba gear and stays underwater for three to five minutes.
They all wear swimming suits, often with various costumes over the top. (There is also one scene with partial nudity – this is not a family show.)
And that old theater salutation, “Break a leg!” cuts a little close to the bone in this case, because the decking around the pool can get slippery. The actors have to mop up the splashes every so often.
Yet it all seems well worth it to Johnson, who has dreamed of doing this play ever since she saw it on Broadway in 2002.
“I thought it was the most inventive show I’d ever seen in my life,” said Johnson, the Civic’s executive artistic director.
She was drawn both to the myths and to the water. She has worked as both a swim coach and a dive coach.
So she talked to the Civic’s technical director, Peter Hardie, about whether they could pull this show off in Spokane. He said, “If you can get the pool, we can do it.”
Pool World donated the pool and all of the setup – a $14,000 value. Some productions of “Metamorphoses” have used only a small wading pool, but this donation allowed the Civic to go the full-immersion route.
Zimmerman premiered “Metamorphoses” at Northwestern University, where she teaches, in 1996 under its original name, “Six Myths.” It played the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago and then – under its present name – had an off-Broadway production in New York in 2001.
It opened just a month after 9/11. With its themes of loss and sorrow, it “arrived at the exact moment when Manhattan can best appreciate it,” said New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley.
He said it speaks “with a dreamlike hush directly to New Yorkers’ souls.”
“Metamorphoses” had its Broadway premiere in 2002. It won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, a Tony Award for Best Direction (Zimmerman) and ran for 400 performances.
Johnson hopes audiences will go away thinking less about the spectacle and more about what Ovid’s ancient stories can teach us today.
“In the end, I hope that the overall impression is that change is going to occur amongst us all and in the end, love will prevail,” she said.
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