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Floating an Old Idea Once Again

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Nothing takes the magic out of magic like a commodity culture. Surrealism sells everything on television these days. A barrage of morphing, shape-shifting digital imagery has taken over our lives. Anybody can morph anything into something else.

Within this blase landscape of the fantastic, it’s a pleasure to have Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” in town.

In the Greco-Roman myths by Roman poet Ovid, women and men turn into trees, into birds, into solid gold. Director-adapter Zimmerman achieves these transformations on stage so elementally, with so little fuss or overt dazzle, that the effect is disarming.

Now at the Mark Taper Forum, the show premiered two years ago at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and more recently traveled to Berkeley and Seattle. Zimmerman knows where the glory of these myths lies. It’s in the magic, but the magic lies also in a glance between doomed lovers, or--breathtakingly--in a king’s sudden realization that his fondest wish has destroyed his daughter. It lies, in other words, within the human heart. Not for nothing does Zimmerman land, gracefully, on this prayer to the gods: “Let me not outlive my own capacity to love.”

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Most of “Metamorphoses” unfolds in a large, shallow pool of water, the centerpiece of Daniel Ostling’s inspired scenic design. With its attractive wooden border, it looks like the world’s most inviting spa. In the water sits a chair and table. Behind the pool looms a tall, Edwardian-looking door with slightly smudged glass--the stage door of the gods.

The text incorporates eight stories, with echoes of other mythological characters. In the beginning, says Lisa Tejero, one of 10 versatile actors on view, there was “chaos.” Then water and hard ground became discrete worlds. According to the god Zeus (Chris Kipiniak), one thing was missing: “Words.”

Zimmerman begins with the tale of King Midas (Raymond Fox), here depicted as a distracted businessman, impatient with his rope-skipping daughter (Anjali Bhimani), given to platitudes about the sanctity of family. The Midas tale is among the more familiar here. Others, such as “Alcyon and Ceyx,” prove no less stage-worthy.

Zimmerman has a way with direct expression. When King Ceyx (Erik Lochtefeld) sets sail and runs into bad weather, he’s thrashed and nearly drowned by the actor playing Aeolus (Kipiniak), master of the winds. That directness is often very funny. In the story of Erysichthon, the titular lunkhead (Kipiniak again) runs afoul of the gods, and the character of Hunger (Bhimani) becomes a monkey on his back, literally, forcing him to eat and eat. And splash and splash, as Kipiniak pantomimes gorging himself to death.

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Throughout, the staging is splashy in two senses of the word, but it’s also very careful. You hear the words and absorb the story’s meanings. In one exceptional pairing, Zimmerman hands us two versions of the Orpheus myth. Orpheus (Lochtefeld) loses Eurydice (Jessica Meyers) to the underworld, follows her, and must pass his infamous don’t-look-back test to bring his love back alive. He fails--and then we see the same story inverted as Zimmerman’s actors play out poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s alternate, mordant version of events.

Zimmerman’s designers sustain an atmosphere of infinite possibility. When King Midas goes for a stroll, lighting designer T.J. Gerckens subtly turns his every step to gold. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes roam the centuries, elegantly. The sounds of “Metamorphoses” are equally persuasive; composer Willy Schwarz blends strains of Philip Glass-like Minimalism with more traditional Indian and Celtic strains. When Hunger crawls out on stage, we hear precisely the right woozy string accompaniment.

Nine of the 10 actors in the Taper “Metamorphoses” have done the show prior to Los Angeles, and it shows. They manage to investigate the grim, incestuous story of Myrrha and her father, Cinyras, follow it with a hilarious take on Phaeton (Doug Hara, whining to his therapist while floating on an inflated pool thingie), and make sense of the contrasts involved.

With “Metamorphoses” following August Wilson’s exuberant “Jitney,” the Taper hasn’t seemed so alive in a long time.

* “Metamorphoses,” Mark Taper Forum, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. (no Saturday matinee May 20). Ends May 21. $29-$42. Pay-what-you-can April 11. (213) 628-2772 or https://www.TaperAhmanson.com. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

Anjali Bhimani: Myrrha and others

Raymond Fox: Midas and others

Doug Hara: Phaeton and others

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Hallie Beaune Jacobson: Aphrodite

and others

Chris Kipiniak: Erysichthon and others

Louise Lamson: Alcyon and others

Barry Alan Levine: Hermes and others

Erik Lochtefeld: Ceyx and others

Jessica Meyers: Eurydice and others

Lisa Tejero: Therapist and others

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Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, adapted from the myths of Ovid, translated by David Slavitt. Set by Daniel Ostling. Costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. Lighting by T.J. Gerckens. Music by Willy Schwarz. Sound by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman. Production stage manager Anjali Bidani.


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