The myths of antiquity can seem mere fanciful diversions: gods popping down from Olympus, people turning into birds. Sure, there's betrayal, violence and death, but these are just stories, no?
For Ted Pappas, myths like those Ovid recounted 2,000 years ago in Metamorphoses are more like ancient versions of science, psychology and sociology. Playwright Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, meanwhile, is a witty, moving free-hand adaptation of Ovid. But what led Pappas to stage that show's Pittsburgh premiere was not just the work's theatricality -- including, famously, a large on-stage swimming pool. It was also that Zimmerman, in transmogrifying these tales of transmogrification, presents them as attempts to explain the world.
"One of the things she does is remind us that these myths are still relevant to us today," says Pappas, artistic director of Pittsburgh Public Theater. And so, with a wink, Midas becomes a contemporary businessman -- who just happens to converse with Bacchus. Apollo and Phaeton becomes a Malibu tycoon and his resentful progeny (who's in therapy).
As Zimmerman herself told Bill Moyers on PBS in 2002, after the play's Broadway premiere, "The Greek gods, I believe, are 12 different names for feelings inside ourselves."
Metamorphoses is staged as a series of vignettes. Some stories are familiar, some not: Orpheus and Eurydice but also "Alcyone and Ceyx," and "Pomona and Vertumnus." Notable is how Zimmerman, of Chicago, plays with form: She incorporates, for instance, translated text not only from Ovid's Orpheus, but from Rilke's, too. The story of Eros and Psyche is rendered in a question-and-answer style dialogue between two narrators.
"It's almost like they're in a museum, but it's alive," says Pappas of the latter scene. "Mary makes us feel that art and history are immediate."
Reviewing the play in The New York Times, and echoing general acclaim, Ben Brantley praised Zimmerman's visuals as "unshakable visions." Less impressed was The New Yorker's John Lahr, who agreed that the show was "fun and full of wonder," but wrote that the onstage pool, "which is the show's gimmick, turns out to be its metaphor -- refreshing and shallow."
The Public's pool is 14-by-21 feet, sloping from 2 to 4 feet deep -- enough water for actors to disappear in, or swim through. The cast of 10 includes Australia's Craig Baldwin (from last year's A Number at the Public) and half its members are local, including Tami Dixon and Dana Michelle Griffith. The cast, like most characters of mythology, are youthful; Pappas adds they're also all "people that are not allergic to chlorine."
The onstage metamorphoses, meanwhile -- characters instantaneously become birds, trees, younger and older versions of themselves -- are achieved through lighting, music and costuming, but mostly by the actors, rather than any special effects.
"It's about the process or metamorphosing," says Pappas. "It's essentially a play that celebrates the art of the theater."
"It's a suspension of disbelief, that's what the theater is," Zimmerman told Moyers. "And so it makes it easy to enter the heart and to believe in greater change as well, not just the little magical enchantment of the theater but that we all can transform."
Pittsburgh Public Theater presents Metamorphoses Jan. 15-Feb. 15. O'Reilly Theater, 650 Penn Ave., Downtown. $40-61 ($15.50 students and age 26 and under). 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org