“Bodies I have in mind and how they can change to assume new shapes,” says a narrator in Mary Zimmerman's Lookingglass Theatre Company production of “Metamorphoses,” this great theater artist's masterwork and one of the very best products ever to be made in Sweet Home Chicago, dogs and deep-dish included.
I first reviewed “Metamorphoses” in 1998, when a much younger man. From there, I watched this collection of Ovid's mythological stories and its shape-shifting pool have a couple of long Chicago runs, an off-Broadway run at Second Stage in New York and, right after Sept. 11, 2001, a Broadway production at the Circle in the Square, which brought great balm to despairing New Yorkers agonizing over loss. Here was an ecumenical piece of Chicago art that seemed to say, with formidable intellect and convincing spiritual rigor, and with a stunningly apt visual metaphor for its broader themes, that life is an eternal continuum. It's only its shape that changes, with some people just making the transition to a new entity more quickly than others. It is also an ode to the sheer power of love — without which, Ovidian story after story herein asserts, there is little point in even taking a breath and certainly none in checking a bank statement, making some mercurial acquisition or otherwise strutting one's stuff.
The text of “Metamorphoses” was published after its Broadway run and produced at many theaters and colleges (with and without water). But the show that opened Saturday night at the Lookingglass is directed by its creator, returning for the first time in a decade to the work that made her subsequent national career. Along with Zimmerman is the same design team of Daniel Ostling, Mara Blumenfeld and T.J. Gerckens, as well as many actors from the original: Anjali Bhimani, Lawrence E. DiStasi, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Doug Hara, Chris Kipiniak, Louise Lamson and, crucially, in the pivotal, heartbreaking role of Midas, a man of gold who understands nothing of worth, Raymond Fox.
Are they as good? No. They are far better.
It's certainly true that these Lookingglass actors have cheated the ravages of time far better than most of us — Lamson, in particularly, still gambols around the Zimmerman pool as if she is 19 years old, and I thought in one instance that the Bhimani role now was being played by some daughter of hers — but you still need some creaks in your bones to internalize Ovid's truth that bodies change, shapes shift, people die, love ends. That is what makes this new “Metamorphoses” far more than a mere reprise; it now is a much deeper dive into the heart and the perils of our short time as part of this particular flawed body politic. Frankly, given its perfectly shaped 90 minutes and the feelings it stirs, you just don't want “Metamorphoses” to come to an end.
When you've seen a show as many times as I've seen this one, you tend to ponder your own reaction to it. Perhaps it's my own age and changed circumstances — I'm about the same age as many of those in this company — that made my reaction Saturday night so surprisingly intense and melted whatever opposition I had felt toward the whole potentially pernicious idea of Lookingglass reprises, as distinct from forging something new. For sure, the addition of Usman Ally to the cast — he plays, among other, Orpheus, he who does not trust and thus turns to look back — is an enormous asset to the show, since Ally brings both an emotional potency, a playfulness and a richness of language to all that he does. But this is a piece that one can access at any age (it's not for kids; most teens will be OK) because it is so well keyed to life's stages. You really don't want to see this show without Fox, whose Midas is the conscience of the piece and whose inherent vulnerability and sadness (an emotion that was present in his work when he was just out of college) now are yet more richly manifest.
Listening closely to Zimmerman's text — and, in terms of written work, this is by far my favorite, to date, of her many pieces of theatrical writing — you come to realize that she very much saw these stories through the insecurities of her relatively young artistic self. The work is peppered with admonitions about looking straight ahead when you create, not back at what people might think of it or pay you for it; taking creative time and not succumbing to the temptations of impatience; avoiding self-consciousness at all costs; all in all, trying always to “move on,” as Sondheim famously put it. Now that Zimmerman has worked at the Met et al., that's all rather touching and, for sure, indicative of how much easier it is to be excellent before you are known as excellent, and compared with your past.
But the genius of this piece — “Metamorphoses” is that rare work of collective theatrical genius that deserves wide exposure to a new generation — is that it does not feel so personal that you cannot find your way in, live among its stories and reboot your life.
Through Nov. 18
1 hour, 30 minutes