To the ancient Greeks and Romans, these myths helped to explore morality, explain the seasons, and personify the nature of desire, stars, trees, flowers and even the wind. As time passed and civilizations changed, myths would eventually be defined through the formulas and unfeeling domain of science. Fantastical stories faded away like shadows. Fortunately, these timeless tales were captured by the Roman poet Ovid, who lived in the first century A.D. during the reign of Emperor Augustus in the era known as the Pax Romana (the Roman peace), a period of great artistic flowering at the height of the Roman Empire. Though “Metamorphoses” is considered the greatest collection of Greek and Roman mythology, Ovid was banished by Augustus, and the poet died in that banishment in what is now Romania. Historians can only speculate as to why the emperor punished Ovid — was it an offensive poem perhaps or an illicit affair from an affectionate, thrice-married poet?
Nevertheless, Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” inspired countless writers from Dante to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Mary Zimmerman, who adapted some of Ovid’s stories into a play in 2002 (which went on to win a Tony Award for best director that year).
This weekend, Haywood Arts Regional Theatre opens its 2007 main stage season with Zimmerman’s script of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” conjuring up these fabulous stories in an experimental style of theatre that calls to mind the magic of Cirque de Soleil and the whimsy of short animated films. There’s romance, heartbreak, death and redemption — themes all so deeply rooted in our collective dreams and memories and ever-present in myths.
When HART Executive Director Steve Lloyd saw the original production of “Metamorphoses” done on Broadway during a trip to New York City, he was blown away, but the action took place in and around a space of water — about as large as HART’s entire stage. The Circle in the Square theatre also had stadium seating so the audience could look down into the water. While it would be dazzling to capture these special effects in HART’s space, it was structurally impossible, so Lloyd and the cast and crew for HART’s version of “Metamorphoses” pondered over how to maintain the magical quality of the show without the pool of water.
The result turned out to be a variety of ideas — everything from black lighting to Asian theatre designs to rolling 30-feet long fabric that simulates water. The actors take turns playing narrators, deities and mortals. There’s no intermission for the hour-and-a-half show. It’s a seamless series of short tales with characters that go through some kind of transformation (or metamorphosis).
“It’s hard to prepare an audience for this,” said Lloyd, who compared the experimental style of “Metamorphoses” to that of “The Elephant Man,” a previous HART production performed several years ago — a show he also directed.
“This is probably the most experimental of anything we’ve tried to do,” Lloyd said. “Hopefully, the audience will enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together.”
Some scenes have no dialogue — only props and playful music. Others include clever anachronisms, or references that break the natural conventions of a time period. So you have Phaeton, the son of sun god Apollo, talking to a psychoanalyst about his disastrous ride on his father’s sky chariot. Or you might hear a discordant alarm ringing in the midst of an ancient story involving the god of sleep.
Roger Magendie plays a narrator, a groovy-sounding Apollo and the greed-obsessed Midas, whose story bookends the play.
Normally, an actor prepares to get inside the head of just one character for an entire play, Magendie said, but in “Metamorphoses,” most of the actors end up having to play several roles.
“It’s a fun show to do,” Magendie said.
The theme of the play is all about change — how the characters change, the forces that cause them to change and how they are affected by these changes. And with the actors themselves morphing into new roles, the audience gets to see the range of talents in each actor.
In one story, HART veteran Tom Dewees plays an arrogant man named Erysichthon, who cuts down a tree that’s sacred to the goddess of agriculture known as Ceres. Ceres exacts her revenge by visiting the spirit of Hunger upon Erysichthon, who dreams of food and drink day and night but can never quench his hunger or thirst.
These stories are just as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago, Dewees says, because they’re involving the human condition — our own greed, our own needs, our own wants. In a modern world full of distractions, we need more Ovids to point out such truths, Dewees adds.
The show opens Friday, April 6, and runs through the following weekend. There will be no performance on Easter Sunday, April 8. Showtime is at 7:30 p.m. for the April 6, 7, 13 and 14 performances. The lone Sunday matinee will be at 3 p.m. on April 15.
Tickets are $16 for adults, $13 for seniors and $8 for students — and only $5 for students for the Sunday matinee. To make reservations call the HART box office at 828.456.6322 Monday through Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. All performances take place at the Performing Arts Center on the grounds of the Shelton House, 250 Pigeon St. in Waynesville.