When it works, Mary Zimmerman’s style of storytelling is sublime. Washington audiences have had a chance to see it at Arena Stage, where her Arabian Nights was a transporting fantasy, and at Shakespeare Theatre Company, where the shattering imagery of her Pericles and Candide provoked gasps and tears. She has a way with lyricism and wonder that strikes a cynical few as twee, but pulls most hearts hugely to throats—mine among them, which is probably why I’m less enthusiastic about the Constellation Theatre’s ambitious Metamorphoses than other critics have been.
It’s not that the play itself—a meditation on passion and folly at the point where the human and the divine collide, drawn from Ovid’s great survey of transformational moments in Greek and Roman myth, and performed in and around a pool of water—can’t be spectacular; the 2002 Broadway production, its tone a fiercely controlled tightrope walk along the line between playful and urgent, reduced me to wordlessness. Nor is it the case that the show can’t be done on a smaller budget; the 2011 production by the Elden Street Players, a Northern Virginia community theater, had plenty of panache.
And to be sure, there are moments in Allison Arkell Stockman’s imaginative staging that work handsomely. An old woman, sold into slavery by a greedy son, beseeches the sea god for a rescue, and sinks into that pool to emerge seconds later as her younger self; a hubristic young king sails confidently off across the ocean, only to be set upon by the minions of wind and water gods in what Stockman and her cast render as a reasonably credible tempest. The hideous specter of hunger attaches herself limpet-like to a man who’s snubbed the grain goddess, driving him to madness and beyond.
But to my taste, the Constellation production doesn’t commit fully enough to the elemental power of these tales. It turns more often than it might to the mug, the wink, the easy laugh. (The trouble begins with the tragedy of Midas and his daughter, which frames the evening and is played for loud, coarse humor by Keith Irby.) And the unmistakably talented percussionist Tom Teasley, who supplies a moody live score for the proceedings, is positioned upstage and in an elevated booth—an arrangement that often pulls focus from the gods and mortals whose adventures he’s accompanying. Together, those infelicities break the cumulative spell of stories that can, well-told, wash over an audience like a flood tide; it’s an evening of small pleasures, but not the transporting, transformational experience it might have been.