Some of the pictures show beautiful, half-naked people wearing billowing white togas while lounging around Greek columns or descending stone steps. Other images depict the same crew positioned underwater, frolicking in an aquamarine paradise, like performers in a mermaid show without the fins.
These promotional photos for the Adrienne Arsht Center's Metamorphoses are lovely. But they couldn't be less appropriate. Not only are the characters far too tortured for this sort of carefree cavorting, but also the water motif is barely exploited in the production.
Writer and director Mary Zimmerman conceived what eventually became Metamorphoses in 1996. The idea: Update fables by Roman poet Ovid, set them in a pool of water, and call it Six Myths. By 2002, the work had expanded to 11 myths and been renamed Metamorphoses. It went on to be nominated for a Tony for Best Play. The Arsht Center's long-awaited regional premiere is presented in conjunction with the University of Miami, whose most talented theater majors share stage time with professional equity actors.
The set, by K. April Soroko, resembles a palatial spa, with a rectangular pool of water inside an elevated platform, positioned in front of a columned balcony, and a stylish projection screen with the audience on three sides. Zimmerman has stated the water is integral to her vision of Ovid's myths, from Midas to Orpheus to Vertumnus. In director Henry Fonte's treatment here, the most literal usage of the water resonates -- the ravaging sea batters the ship of Ceyx (Adam Maggio), sending the god and his seamen splashing about in chaos. Then there's the slow drift of Phaeton (Tim Bell), the son of the Sun, as he relates familial angst to a therapist from a creative pool float in the shape of his father's bright-orange sphere.
But far too often, the water becomes tangential to the action, a novelty to work around. Or it's employed only superficially -- a drunken character might stumble into the pool in an ostentatious pratfall. Sometimes the water is such a distraction that it overrides the voices of the student actors, who tend to underenunciate. The production misses the abstraction and the metaphorical heft of its most distinctive conceit -- the sense of water as a place of spiritual cleansing.
The production's pacing is also intended to flow like water. It's a stream of mesmeric stories presented in unbroken succession, without an intermission. Thanks in part to the sluggishness of some of the material -- particularly the myths of Erysicthon and Baucis and Philemon, which eschew the water -- the experience feels about twice as long as its 105 minutes.