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Water destroys, dissolves, transforms, and transfigures the characters in Metamorphoses, the collection of ancient stories reimagined vividly by the Chicago-based theatrical sorceress Mary Zimmerman. It’s the linking metaphor—and the unifying medium—in a production that famously, since the late ’90s, has been staged across the country on, in, and under the surface of theatrical pools. Now, at Arena Stage, Zimmerman has reframed the 90-minute evening for the in-the-round Fichandler Theater—so you never quite know from which corner the next proud god or heedless mortal will manifest.
Like all myths, most of these stories are cautionary tales. Midas, vain and venal to the point of ignoring his young daughter, will overreach when a god offers him a single wish and lose the one thing he didn’t properly value. Erisychthon, busily industrious, will choose profit over piety, and Ceres will punish him with a hunger that will have him betraying his mother and eventually himself. Myrrha, most darkly, will learn the consequences of ignoring the charms of Aphrodite, who will curse her with a passion that will be her unmaking.
Not all of them, though. The love story of Cupid and Psyche, unfolding in a series of gentle questions and answers, illustrates the virtues of patience, forbearance, and forgiveness. Baucis and her Philemon, humble and generous even in their poverty, will find favor with the greatest of gods, and their commitment to each other will be celebrated for eternity.
That last tale—ending with a gorgeous bit of stagecraft that marries fire and water and proves again the power of the simple physical gesture in a world where expensive effects too often leave us yawning—is just the capstone of a production that distills more than a decade of experimentation with lyrical storytelling. Zimmerman and her cast, some of whom created their characters back in the day, deploy humor and heart in equal measures, framing timeless tales of love and loss and learning with a humanity that touches on the divine.