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'Metaphorphoses' brings ancient myths to life

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

The extraordinary core of the production of "Metamorphoses" first appeared at Northwestern University in the late 1990s. Later it moved to Broadway, where its creator, Mary Zimmerman, won a Tony Award for best director.

Using David Slavitt's translation of the Roman writer Ovid's poetry, Zimmerman, who is also directing the Arena Stage production, brings Ovid's stories of the Greek gods and goddesses to life. Different actors function as narrator, while the rest of the company acts out myth after myth, with each story a gem of wisdom in word and gesture.

Just as she did in the first production, Zimmerman uses a pool whose water represents eternal change, the theme of "Metamorphoses." What is new here is that the production is done in the round. Daniel Ostling's set places the rectangular pool in the center of the Fichandler Stage. A wide, light-colored deck runs around the pool, with the action taking place around the edge and in the water.

All the stories talk of life and death. Some educate, some entertain, but all envision big themes -- love, suffering, happiness, redemption -- in human terms.

Onstage
'Metamorphoses'
» Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
» When: Through March 17
» Info: $40 to $85; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org

"Metamorphoses" begins with one of the most familiar myths, of Midas, the greedy king who loves money so much he prays that everything he touches be turned to gold. The irony is that when Midas gets his wish he touches his daughter, who immediately turns to gold. Raymond Fox is superb as the hapless Midas, who learns loss and humility.

In the second tale, the exquisite Louise Lamson appears as Alcyon. Her young husband, Ceyx (Geoff Packard), is determined to consult an oracle and insists on going by sea. A storm wrecks his ship and Ceyx dies, but Aphrodite (Tempe Thomas) turns the couple into birds so they can always be together.

The funniest myth by far is that of Phaeton (Doug Hara), son of Helios, the sun. As he lounges in the pool on a yellow float, Phaeton tells his therapist (Lisa Tejero) a harrowing experience he had with his father when he asked for the keys to the car, then crashed, scorching the Earth.

Derek Hasenstab, Chris Kipiniak, Ashleigh Lathrop and Lauren Orkus complete the extraordinarily talented ensemble.

Mara Blumenfeld creates timeless costumes with colorful tunics, long skirts and the occasional modern touch, like Phaeton's yellow swim trunks. Willy Schwarz's tantalizing original music has Eastern influences featuring flutes, cymbals and drums.

The greatest value of "Metamorphoses" is its demonstration that the Greeks' beloved stories have relevance today. Zimmerman reminds us in exquisitely refreshed fashion how enduring myths are, showing us ourselves at our most laughable and our most generous, revealing the best and the worst about mankind.

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