Mary Zimmerman's wonderfully inventive 2002 play, Metamorphoses, based on 10 of Ovid's tales of the Greek myths, is being given a spirited and hip production at the URI Theatre (through March 3). Based on David R. Slavitt's 1994 translation of Ovid and even quoting from Stephen Mitchell's translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes," Zimmerman's version is respectful of its sources in tone and language but allows plenty of room for broad humor and contemporary interpretations.
ZEUS AND HERMES Hill and Lanni in Metamorphoses.
The URI ensemble, under the direction of Steven Raider-Ginsburg, takes that and runs with it. Costumes by David T. Howard and sound design by Michael Hyde are particularly noteworthy, adding much to the characters and the scene-setting.
For example, the young women who portray old-fashioned laundresses by a pond open the show with Dylan's "Girl from the North Country." It's a reminder of modern mythmaking and also of the love theme threaded through Ovid's tales. The laundresses and some of the other 11 cast members take turns narrating the tales, though the characters in the stories often assume their own voices.
First up is the tale of Midas, with his own up-tempo entrance tune, to which Brandon Gailliard performs some fancy dance steps and generally struts his stuff. A bit later, he also gets across Midas's anguish when his daughter (Laine Wagner) is turned to gold.
The tender love story of Alcyone and Ceyx begins with a beautiful dance sequence (Daraja Hinds and Benjamin Miller), as the narrator describes their "monotony of happiness." Alas, Ceyx sets out to sea and is drowned (kudos to Patrick Lynch for the storm and shipwreck) and the grieving Alcyone and her dead husband are turned to birds, with a lovely representation of their flight together: colorful ribbons waving atop a long pole held by each of the actors as they circle the stage.
Another lesser-known of the myths is that of Erysichthon (Benjamin Hill) who is punished by Ceres (Julia Bartoletti) for chopping down a sacred tree; she sends the frightening figure of Hunger (Catherine Poirier) to goad him to his death.
The most well-known myth — Orpheus (Miller) and Eurydice (Christine O'Connell) — is presented in two variations, each incredibly evocative and soul-stirring. The first features the wedding, the mortal snakebite and Orpheus's request of Hades (Gailliard), with the condition set of not looking back at Eurydice, as they ascend from the Underworld, with Hermes (Americo Lanni) as their guide. The second relives the trio's fateful steps upward. And the narrator asks whether this is a story about love and loss, about time's progression, or about an artist's impatience?
This sad tale is followed by an amusing one — Pomona (a sprightly Hinds) and Vertumnus (Marc Tiberiis II, in one of several well-wrought comic roles) — though it actually has a tragic story in the middle of it — Myrrha (Wagner) angers Aphrodite (Poirier) by not falling in love with any of her many suitors, and is thus visited with a passion for . . . her father (Hill). This telling does release Pomona from her apathy, and she gives in to Vertumnus's pleas.