Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” a lush, sensual adaptation of classic myths by Ovid, opens Thursday night at Arena Stage.
Many of the cast originated their parts in the 1998 Lookingglass Theatre Company production in Chicago. And after nearly 15 years of intermittent productions performed over a stage made of water, Arena’s round theater is making it feel, well, new again.
“It changes a lot,” said Doug Hara who plays Eros, the god of love, among other characters.
Up until now, it was the water, the dominant feature in this show, that could be relied on to transform each night. It is telling, however, that the cast points to performing in the “round,” not in the uniquely malleable water, as the real challenge.
Origins of a Myth
It all started nearly two decades ago with a student play called “Six Myths” that Zimmerman staged at Northwestern University. Years later, she worked with several of the actors appearing in this current revival to create “Metamorphoses,” which debuted in 1998 in the Windy City.
From there it flew east, arriving in New York in August 2001. The next month, on the last day in their rehearsal space, the events of Sept. 11 hit and changed everything, including the show. Suddenly, the audience and the performers processed the events in the real world through the myths relayed on stage.
“There is a story, the second story of the piece, which is the longest one,” said the actor who originated King Midas, Raymond Fox. “It is essentially about a couple, and the husband goes to work that morning, as he does every day. He goes to sea, and the wife has a bad feeling, and she says, ‘Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go.’”
But the husband doesn’t listen and dies at sea.
“All [the wife] wants is to get his body back,” Fox said. “That’s all she wants.”
“There were times, when we were off-Broadway, when we would hear people just weeping in the house,” he recalled.
After the show’s Broadway run, it crisscrossed the country. Now, after eight years of being dark, the watery stage has been revived.
Myth and Love
The first night “Metamorphoses” opened for its Chicago revival last fall, Zimmerman gathered her actors, slightly older and more deeply connected than they were when they first played the roles in Chicago in the 1990s.
Fox remembered that she told the group: “These stories have been around for thousands of years. They came down from the oral tradition and they represent a certain reality about the human condition. They are about greed and loss and redemption and lust and love and all of those things. Those archetypes are not things that we will ever solve. They are things that will always be with us.”
One of the myths Zimmerman introduced to the play late in its initial development was the myth of Eros and Psyche.
Eros, portrayed by Hara, is played blind. His great love, Psyche — the Greek word for soul, mind, spirit — is forbidden to look on him. She does, of course, and is subsequently wrested from him. She has to pass a series of tests to return to him.
In the show, Eros enters the scene wearing only wings, blindfolded and carrying an arrow.
“It feels like a kind of sacred scene. Quiet and still. It’s a really respectful scene,” Hara said. “There is nothing, sort of, lascivious about it.”
Nonetheless, he said he is “never not nervous about it,” adding, “In the round, there is no protection.”
That exposure mimics the vulnerability that comes with loving and being loved.
“That intimacy is a crucible of some kind,” Hara said. “In order to be intimate with some one, you have to be vulnerable. It sounds cheesy, but intimacy is a risky thing.
“It is a risky thing because you can be hurt. It is a risky thing because you can lose that person,” he said.
“There is always a sense of courage and bravery in love.
“Maybe, when you’re involved in doing a show of this nature, you’re tapping into something big, basic . . . human.” Hara posited. “Maybe that opens people up to friendships and falling in love and choosing each other for life?”
Romance on Stage
Fox said the life he has with his wife, actress Anne Fogarty, and their daughter, Nora, nearly didn’t happen.
“I had gone to grad school out east and ended up back in Chicago by accident,” he recalled. “Although I had worked on early Lookingglass shows and I had been around for the early formation of the company, I wasn’t an ensemble member yet. I was trying to get back to New York. I had set these plans. I had let my apartment go. I had ordered the moving van.”
Then, at what was supposed to be his final ensemble meeting, Zimmerman took Fox aside and asked him to put New York on hold for a few months.
More than 14 years later, he’s still in Chicago.
“If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have started dating my wife, and we wouldn’t have worked together, and I wouldn’t have stayed in Chicago and, you know, all those things wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Fox and his wife are just one of the couples who met during the life cycle of the play. During the first professional production, Fogarty — a D.C.-area native — was the first actress to take over the role of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. At the time, Fox said the couple had only been dating a couple of months, so they fell in love while working together.
Now they are parents to 6-year-old Nora.
Though Fogarty isn’t in the Arena Stage production, she was cast again for last fall’s Chicago production.
“It was the first time she and I had done a play together since our daughter, Nora, was born,” Fox says. “I said, [‘Metamorphoses’] will be something that we tell Nora about as a memory or, if we both do it, it can be a memory for her, too.”
During the Chicago run, Nora sat backstage every weekend. She memorized the show, befriended the assistant stage manager and pitched in.
“She just got really fascinated with everything to do with the show, so it’s been something that the three of us have been able to share as a family,” Fox said. “And it is great because everything is always magic to her. She sort of reminded — not that we needed reminding — but I feel like she reminded us of the importance of the play and the power of the play.”