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Last weekend, Raleigh Ensemble Players literally waded in the water — a 25’ x 35’, 5,000-gallon pool — to perform 10 entertaining episodes of ancient Greek and Roman myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as dramatized by Chicago playwright and director and Northwestern University professor Mary Zimmerman. This provocative play, inspired by David R. Salvitt’s 1994 free-verse translation of the epic poem by Publius Ovidius Naso (43 B.C.-17 or 18 A.D.), won the 2002 Lucille Lortel and the 2002 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play and the 2002 Drama League Award for Best Play before transferring to Broadway, where was nominated for the 2002 Tony Award® for Best Play, and Mary Zimmerman won the 2002 Tony for Best Direction of a Play.
Raleigh Ensemble Players artistic director C. Glen Matthews and managing director Gary Williams took a giant leap of faith in staging Metamorphoses in and around the giant pool that they built in the 425-seat theater of the Cardinal Gibbons Performing Arts Center in west Raleigh, NC. Scenic designer Thomas Mauney constructed a marvelous but often dimly lit multilevel set on which the ancient gods and mortals could gambol when they weren’t splashing through the pool, and costume designer Shannon Clark dressed the 10-member cast in some timeless threads, suggesting both ancient Roman attire and modern-day duds.
Choreographer Carolyn Usanis and fight director Jason A. Armit added imaginative touches to Matthews’ savvy staging, and cellist Michelle Wang provided haunting solo accompaniment based on motifs selected by Glen Matthews.
The crackerjack comic ensemble of Sean A. Brosnahan, Jesse R. Gephart, Whitney Griffin, John Honeycutt, Barbette Hunter, Lori Scarborough Ingle, Brenda Lo, Chris Milner, Eric Morales, and Christine Rogers then proceeded to limn each of their many roles in vivid colors.
Metamorphoses starts with an episode entitled “Cosmogony,” in which a Woman by the Water (Whitney Griffin), a Scientist (Christine Rogers), and Zeus (Chris Milner) attempt to explain the origins of the universe. Later, three Laundresses (Lori Scarborough Ingle, Barbette Hunter, and Christine Rogers), reminiscent of the sultry Sirens in the Coen brothers’ comic masterpiece O Brother, Where Art Thou, provide commentary for the story of King Midas (the affable John Honeycutt), to which dramatist Mary Zimmerman returns time after time throughout the play.
Although wealthy beyond his wildest imagination, Midas nevertheless wants more. After Midas saves the drunken Silenus (a wonderful rubbery-legged comic cameo by Jesse R. Gephart) from drowning, and billets him in the royal palace until he sobers up, the grateful god of wine Bacchus (Eric Morales) gives Midas the fabled Golden Touch. But Midas’ delight turns to horror when he accidentally turns his rambunctious daughter (the saucy Brenda Lo) into a statue of solid gold. A sympathetic Bacchus then sends Midas in search of a mystic pool whose magic waters may allow him to wash the Golden Touch off his hands and turn his daughter back into a little girl.
In the epic love story of Alcyone (the lovely Whitney Griffin) and her seafaring husband Ceyx (the dashing Sean Brosnahan), Ceyx’s ill-advised thirst for adventure carries him far from home and ends in disaster and death. Only the intervention of the gods causes his body to wash up on the shores of his native land, so that his grieving widow can bury it.
Later, when the construction foreman Erysichthon (Chris Milner) chops down a tree sacred to Ceres (Whitney Griffin), she wreaks a horrible revenge on him by giving him an insatiable hunger so strong that he would even sell his Mother (Christine Rogers) to a Buyer (Jesse Gephart) to get money to satisfy his cravings.
Sean Brosnahan and Barbette Hunter add passionate performances as the legendary lovers Orpheus and Eurydice, cruelly separated on their wedding day by her untimely death. When the silver-tongued poet Orpheus invades the Underworld to rescue his bride, Hades (Jesse Gephart) strikes a cruel bargain. If Orpheus can lead Eurydice to the surface without ever looking back to make sure she is following him, then Eurydice will be restored to life.
Another highlight of Metamorphoses is the story — told to a Therapist (Christine Rogers) — of Phaeton (Jesse Gephart), who bitterly resents his father Apollo (Sean Brosnahan), because the Sun god never lets him drive the fiery chariot across the sky. But when Apollo finally relents, Phaeton steers the Sun too close to the Earth and scorches it.
The show closes with the poignant story of Baucis (Barbette Hunter) and Philemon (Sean Brosnahan), a devoted elderly couple whose hospitality to the gods Zeus (Chris Milner) and Hermes (Eric Morales), who are disguised as travelers, earns them a special blessing as a reward for their generosity to strangers.
Mixing the mythological and the modern in a marvelous pastiche, playwright Mary Zimmerman and Raleigh Ensemble Players gave Triangle theatergoers a lot to chew on in their all-too-short run of five performances on Aug. 13-16. Metamorphoses is a magnificent production that deserves a revival.