Mary Zimmerman is a professor at Northwestern University, and her show "Metamorphoses" had its genesis as an academic exercise there nearly two decades ago.
But if you let that scare you away from Arena Stage's exquisite new production, you'll miss out on some of the finest theater around. The show long ago made the transformative leap from college to Broadway, education to entertainment. It is now incredibly sophisticated and stylish - downright magical - in the way it retells stories from classic mythology. There's nothing in the least pedantic about it.
"Metamorphoses" is the show that Zimmerman has become best known for, having garnered her a Tony as Best Director in 2002. But it's very much of a piece with her adaptation of "Arabian Nights," which Arena staged in 2011. (Both shows were first produced by Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre, Zimmerman's theatrical home base.) Certainly anyone who took in that magic carpet ride of a show, with its lyrical retelling of Scheherazade's classic stories, should make haste planning a return trip to Arena's in-the-round Fichandler stage.
For "Metamorphoses," Zimmerman and her regular set designer Daniel Ostling have converted the stage to include a large pool, since the show focuses on the myths and parables first told by the Roman poet Ovid, most of them involving water in some fashion or another. The pool sometimes stands in for rough seas, and, yes, patrons near the perimeter may get wet from the splashing. (Arena considerately provides them with splash guards.) But neither the wayward water nor Mara Blumenfeld's ever-tactful costumes detract from the classic tales, as Constellation Theatre Company's romping production of "Metamorphoses" sometimes did last year.
Zimmerman and her team bring these tales to life as vividly and as fantastically as possible. T.J. Gerckens's lights are always just the right shade of transfixing and transporting; Willy Schwarz's original incidental music is mostly dreamy, never jarring; and Blumenfeld fits everyone in appropriate, often enchanting attire - most notably the goddess of the rainbow, who comes decked out in a sheer dress covered in glittering lights.
The acting comes courtesy of 10 actors who take on various roles, from King Midas to Apollo to Aphrodite, and do such an accomplished job working together as a tight ensemble, you give up trying early on to identify anyone who is better than the rest. They're all equally great, and most if not all of them are used to working as a sharp team. In fact, five of them are veterans of the show from when it was on Broadway a decade ago, and a few of those started with the show even earlier as graduate students at Northwestern. These include Doug Hara, who plays, among other characters, a spoiled Phaeton, complaining about the inattentiveness of his father Apollo, all the while soaking up his father's sun, lounging on a float. This story encapsulates why this production of "Metamorphoses" works so well: Hara's Phaeton is a riot, but he plays it straight-faced and serious. He pauses every now and then to let the crowd chuckle, but not so exaggeratedly that he's egging us on to guffaw.
The show is peppered here and there with light humor, including knowing winks to its own art and artifice. But the humor never overpowers the main, serious themes, which capture the spectra of ineffable human qualities, from love to loss, satisfaction to greed, selflessness to vanity.
"Metamorphoses" runs for roughly 90 minutes without intermission. You'll be happy they opted not to interrupt the magic halfway through, but chances are you'd be content with it going longer. And if you're anything like me, you'll leave with a fervent wish that Zimmerman and Arena team up again, and soon.
"Metamorphoses." Five stars. To March 17. Arena Stage. 1101 Sixth St. SW. $40 to $85. 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org