Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 2005
It’s all about transformation. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” an epic, 15-book poem written in Latin around 8 A.D., concerns change and alteration in mythical gods and mortals. In order to recreate the internationally acclaimed theatrical adaptation conceived by the acclaimed Chicago writer/director, Mary Zimmerman, the Lamb’s Players Theatre had to transform its Coronado space into a swimming pool, hothouse, laundry room and giant dryer.
The technical and design demands of the production are enormous. Zimmerman’s dazzling creation, which premiered on Broadway in 2002 (where it was called the “theater event of the year,” nominated for three Tony Awards, garnering one for Best Direction), was centered around a large rectangular swimming pool, where most of the action takes place.
Lambs technical director Nathan Peirson has built a 10×20 foot pool, ranging in depth from 6 to 20 inches, which has to be kept at a temperature of 98-100 degrees. Problem is, the heater/filter can’t be running during the show because of the noise it generates. Pearson has built ‘hot boxes’ offstage, small enclosed, heated spaces that will warm the actors after their submersion. The pool also has to be absolutely water-tight, perhaps double-lined, and checked regularly for chemical balance and healthy maintenance. Drainage is a concern; where the displaced water will go when actors slosh around in the pool. The theater may even have to be de-humidified. The area around the pool requires special textured resurfacing, so the barefoot actors don’t slip and slide around the stage. Post-performance mopping and pumping are a special challenge, too. And then there’s the lighting, which will have to come from the side to avoid unwanted reflections. And the water must remain relatively dark, so when actors seem to disappear when they go under.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, award-winning costumer Jeanne Reith has had to consider the water-resistance of the fabrics she’s chosen for the 54 outfits worn by ten actors portraying 26 major characters. She feels fortunate that there are diverse fabric options, ranging from the rip-stop used in parachutes to lycra, spandex and even some gauzes. Body shapers need to be worn underneath, to counter the transparency of clingy materials. During performances, Reith is posting three people backstage — one to change the clothes, one to fix and dry hair and one to monitor the wet garments and send them to the dryer. She talked of a large, quick-drying blower backstage as well.
Then there’s the problem of towels. When the St. Louis Repertory Theatre mounted the show, they reported using 100 towels a night and doing laundry all day. The Lambies plan to spend hours at a Laundromat after each show. Director Robert Smyth quips that “the pool will be open for adult swim during the day.” On a slightly more serious note, he worries about the chlorine: “Midway through the run, the whole cast could have greenish hair.”
This isn’t the Lambs’ greatest challenge (the Wright Brothers’ flying in Flight was) but it’s right up there as one of the trials of their 35 years of existence and ten years in the Coronado space. Their theater, fortunately, has a modular floor (set six feet below the visible steel deck) which allows the pool to be sunk ‘below ground.’
Smyth, the Lamb’s artistic director, relishes the challenge. “I think I was getting a little complacent,” he laughs.
But this is just the kind of show he and his company love to do. It’s an ensemble piece (cast all in-house, especially in view of recent belt-tightening), that’s “very engaging, physical and narrative-based, all about storytelling,” he says. “It melds the classic with the contemporary and considers intriguing elements of human behavior and existence. Distilling down those intense human moments – of love, loss, betrayal, greed and grief – into these mythic stories that are the foundation of Western culture, that try to explain who we are as people. We carry these stories in our cultural chromosomes, and they resonate for us. Whenever we tackle something that’s got a story element that’s going to shake an audience, I get excited.”
Don’t worry; you don’t need to go running to read Ovid, or pull your Edith Hamilton “Mythology” down from the shelf. But the more familiar you are with these timeless tales – of Midas, Narcissus, Orpheus, Poseidon, Pandora – the more you’ll get out of the 90-minute, intermissionless play. If you don’t have the background, you might be inspired to read the stories, which have influenced Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, not to mention more recent literature, music, dance, opera and movies.
“An audience member,” says Smyth, “can know the stories and come and be enriched. Or not know the stories and come and be hit by discovery, the amazing feeling that the story understands you. The transcendence of these stories opens up the fact that we are not just time, chance and chemistry.
“There is a great deal of heart and humor in the pieces as Zimmerman created and shaped them. She gives the classical stories modern references. Midas, for example, is a venture capitalist. I’m of the belief that humor disarms you and in that, you become more vulnerable to being moved emotionally. The narrative moves us to see things we might have missed, to remember things we might have forgotten.”
Audience inspiration follows designer perspiration. That’s what you’d call a myth-adventure.
[Metamorphoses runs at Lamb’s Players Theatre from March 31-May 15. 619-437-0600; lambsplayers.org.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.