After 9/11, Manhattan was less an isle of joy than ash. The debris from the attacks on the World Trade Center fell everywhere; for days the dominant feature of the cityscape was cinder and dust: a topsy-turvy world in which clouds were now curbside, and the heavens rained only earth. Unsurprisingly, the effect on Manhattan’s theater district was devastating; many Broadway and off-Broadway shows posted immediate closing notices, and New York City braced for the weakest theatrical season in memory. For one play in particular, the timing could not have been worse. Mary Zimmerman’s fairytale adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a 2000-year-old epic poem about miracles of transformation, was slated to open just a single week later.
Against all expectations, however, the play flourished, especially among shell-shocked New Yorkers; entirely by accident, it became America’s — and Rome’s — first play about 9/11. The dominant image of Zimmerman’s moving exploration of love and loss was simply water: a much-needed antidote to the smoldering, apocalyptic desert at Ground Zero. Set in and around a shimmering pool, Zimmerman’s selections from Roman poetry do not shy from such painful themes as untimely death and the world’s capacity for cruelty — but they also offer the cosmos a chance to redeem itself: to restore as well to slaughter, to cleanse as well as pollute. Water can be deadly, but it’s also vital, and so the play — making its local premiere at the Vexler Theater — ultimately leaves the audience teary-eyed for the scrappy, stupid species that is us.
While there’s not exactly water, water everywhere, Ken and Tami Frazier’s set certainly makes a splash. Exquisitely lit, the pool is a literary symbol made liquid. Zimmerman’s sundry tales of change each interact with this central prop, and provide the play’s most arresting images: of bodies sucked into non-being, of evaporating embraces, of Heaven’s fire finally contained in a beautiful vista of floating candles. There’s more than a dash of storybook theater in Eva Laporte’s sensitive direction. Simple props, such as a sash or sunglasses, appropriately metamorphose actors into multiple characters, allowing the imagination to be awash with the ingenuity and abundant humor of Ovid’s slippery text.
The play, formed of a dozen interlocking myths, gushes by at a zippy 85 minutes. The evening’s highlight is likely the scene in which young bride Alcyone (skillfully portrayed by Amy Sloan) loses her itinerant, somewhat boneheaded, husband Ceyx (Guadalupe Flores) to a roiling storm at sea. Here, it’s not the death itself that’s affecting as much as Alcyone’s awful not-knowing, the impossibility for closure in a world that’s all wreckage but no corpses. Juxtaposed with a cleverly staged dream sequence — the god Sleep manages just one miracle before catching some zzzz’s — Alcyone discovers the truth, not just of Ceyx’s drowning, but of his love. It’s a theme that informs nearly all of the play’s transformations: Not even death is as quicksilver as eros, or as potent.
Metamorphoses’ large acting ensemble is generally solid, though visual flourishes certainly win out over attention to the play’s poetry. In particular, Orpheus’s talky descent and ascent from the underworld has some real ups-’n’-downs. But this is more than compensated for by J. J. Gonzalez’s star turn as the callow, neurotic Phaeton, who, having disastrously borrowed the keys to the sun god’s BMW, must suffer Zimmerman’s witty send-up of psychobabble from a poolside therapist (Kimberly Stephenson, channeling Dr. Jung). Vanessa Eichler, as the conflicted princess Myrrha, conceives the type of affection for her dad not often found outside Appalachia. Eichler effectively conveys Myrrha’s torment as well as her lust during some well lubricated daughter-on-father action (and if you think it’s awkward to read this sentence, just wait until you see it — theatrical magic). Jim Mammarella bookends the production as the thoughtless King Midas, whose disastrous love for gold ends in the destruction of the thing he cherishes most. In Zimmerman’s compassionate universe, however, even a fool gets a second touch.
In sum, I was moved by this production, and I have a heart of flint. I can only imagine what it does for audience members with, say, souls. (The play does feature incest and partial nudity, so be sure to bring the kiddies: This might be their last chance in San Antonio.) Rarely does theater in the Alamo City engage the heart and mind this thoroughly.
And perhaps that’s the most welcome change of all. •
2:30pm Sun, Nov 4
Through Nov 10
Sheldon Vexler Theatre
12500 NW Military