I love going to regional theaters. Often, on vacation, I find myself at the theater. This seems odd to people, because I go to the theater so often in New York, but it makes perfect sense to me; I enjoy the theater. I'm also fascinated by the different audiences around the country and the business of regional theaters. After all, those theaters are often a breeding ground for what we see here in NYC.
Usually, I only go see new shows out-of-town. But occasionally I see revivals of shows I truly love. (Ford's Theatre, expect me for Violet.) When I heard Mary Zimmerman was putting on a revival of Metamorphoses with much of the original cast, I knew I had to go. The revival first played at the show's original home, Chicago's Lookinglass Theatre, where Zimmerman is an ensemble member. It is now playing at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where I saw it a couple of weeks ago.
It has been about a decade since I saw a major production of Metamorphoses and about the same amount of time since I was at the Arena Stage. The Arena Stage is much changed since I was last there -- since fall of 2010 it has been housed in the Mead Center for America Theater, a modern facility with three venues inside it. I was impressed by the space -- it's clean and well-kept. And, though I hadn't been there in many years, I have kept up with Artistic Director Molly Smith's choices. In a world where many regional theaters, facing public funding cuts, are making safe choices to hold onto their subscriber base, Smith takes risks. Some of her choices are divisive, but at least she does things that spark discussions.
Of course, a production of Metamorphoses, Zimmerman's most acclaimed work, wasn't a risky proposition. Metamorphoses, unlike the Arena, was much the same as it was when I last saw it. On the negative side, the show seemed literally brighter than it had in New York, which I thought detracted from some of the stage beauty. On the positive side, there, onstage before me, was the Metamorphoses I remember. Yes, the pool and the theater are different, but, it doesn't matter. There is still something so magical about it.
In New York, Zimmerman's poetic intertwining of Ovid's stories was wrapped in publicity spin about healing from 9/11. I wondered if it would play differently outside of that context. It did not. Zimmerman's work stands on its own. She has created a work of compassion that somehow eschews pretentiousness, despite its sometimes lofty lessons.
Years ago, in between the Broadway run and this Arena mounting, I ventured with my friend Devika (a devoted follower of the NY production), to a small theater in Los Angeles to see a tiny, tiny production of Metamorphoses. The pool sort of looked like it came from a Saturday Night Live sketch about a play set in water. I think my college friends, with no acting experience, would have given better performances. And the boring parts of the text, and there are some, were so draggy, people near me fell asleep. But it was still Zimmerman's lyrical script and there was still a feeling of enchantment when we sat there listening to it (picturing, as Devika and I both could, Zimmerman's original staging).
Sitting at Arena, it was great to see Doug Hara floating on the pool, Chris Kipiniak (who has become a YouTube sensation thanks to the "Real Actors Read Yelp" series) being ravished by hunger and Raymond Fox turning everything to gold. It was all just as I remembered. (Though I did miss Mariann Mayberry.) If anything, there was something even more emotional about it now. Perhaps the performances have grown with time (though I don't think so), or perhaps my own growth has created a greater understanding of the stories, or perhaps I'm now just comparing this version to the last one I saw in LA , but for some reason, I was more transported by this Metamorphoses. There is something about Zimmerman's ability--even in her lesser achievements--to imbue each moment of a show with meaning (whether easily understood or not). I look forward to seeing her Jungle Book.
I hope this Metamorphoses comes back to New York, but, if it doesn't, I am happy audiences can see it now at Arena.
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