Ten points to whoever identifies which of Ovid's myths Mary Zimmerman has adapted here
Ten points to whoever identifies which of Ovid's myths Mary Zimmerman has adapted here Credit: Liz Lauren

In 1998 the then-itinerant Lookingglass Theatre Company opened a new show, Metamorphoses, at the now-defunct Ivanhoe Theatre. Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, it was based on a work by Ovid, completed in 8 CE—the same year the Roman poet was banished by Emperor Augustus for his allegedly immoral writings. Though Zimmerman’s 90-minute production barely skimmed the surface of Ovid’s 15-part epic, it captured the essence of his meditation on love—its power and fragility, its cruelty and whimsy, its ability to nurture and destroy.

Metamorphoses went on to Broadway success, winning Zimmerman the 2002 Tony for best direction and helping to establish Lookingglass as one of Chicago’s premier ensembles. The company—no longer itinerant, by the way, with a home in the Water Tower Water Works building—is opening its 25th anniversary season with a new mounting.

When I reviewed the original production, I praised the “coolly expressive storytelling.” But what strikes me about this new incarnation is its warmth. Zimmerman’s eclectic style, though free of sentimentality, is now imbued with a palpable empathy for the characters. The evening ranges from ironic irreverence to eerie mystery, from lyrical romanticism to dark violence, yet the abrupt shifts in tone are never jarring and never feel contrived. Bringing a postmodern sensibility to myths that were ancient even to the ancients, Zimmerman unlocks the tales’ universality and timelessness.

Some of the vignettes are familiar, others more obscure. The best known may be the legend of gold-obsessed King Midas, played by Raymond Fox as a smug capitalist who might very well think corporations are people. Or it may be the story of Orpheus, the poet who descended into the underworld to reclaim his dead bride, Eurydice, then lost her forever on the path back to the land of the living. (Here Zimmerman juxtaposes Ovid’s account with that of Rainer Maria Rilke in a 1908 poem.) Less famous is the tale of Myrrha (the stunning dancer Anjali Bhimani), whose disdain for romance so angered Aphrodite—portrayed by Anne Fogarty as a blowsy hooker—that the goddess cursed the girl with an incestuous passion for her own father. But the gods can also be compassionate: Zeus and Hermes turn the elderly Philemon and his wife Baucis into trees so that neither will outlive the other. And, in another scene, a grieving widow and her drowned husband are reunited as seabirds.

A youth’s longing for his father’s acceptance underlies the story of Phaeton, son of Apollo, who dared to drive the chariot of the sun and found he couldn’t control its fiery power. Phaeton is portrayed comically, as a spoiled whiner, kvetching to his therapist (the droll Marilyn Dodds Frank), who in turn analyzes the legend’s psychological subtext. The playful humor of this scene gives way to the enigmatic allegory of Psyche—her name meant “soul” to the Greeks—who dared to sneak a peek at her sleeping lover, Eros, and thereby drove him away. In an image borrowed from an illustration created by Steele Savage for Edith Hamilton’s classic 1942 book, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, Douglas Hara portrays Eros as an angelic youth, naked except for his white wings.

Metamorphoses is perfect theatrical storytelling that never stumbles or strikes a false note. Zimmerman’s approach is painterly and literary but also acrobatically physical, and the ten-member cast bring it to life, combining athletic movement with beautifully spoken narration.

Even as Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes ingeniously fuse archaic and contemporary styles, so the incidental music by Willie Schwarz evokes both ancient and modern Greece, employing the sounds of the lyre, the flute, and the bouzouki. Most memorably, there’s Daniel Ostling’s set. Ingeniously lit by T.J. Gerckens, it’s dominated by a square wading pool, in which the actors splash, swim, fall, float, roll amorously, and thrash angrily. Behind the pool is the image of a beautiful blue sky, around it a wood deck, and above it a crystal chandelier. Water, air, earth, and fire—an elemental set for a brilliant collection of elemental stories.