A teacher once told me that “literature” is anything written that is worth saving. This definition cleverly encompasses instructions for household appliances as well as fiction of permanent and universal interest. In A.D. 8, the Roman poet Ovid completed the mock-epic Metamorphoses. Exactly 2000 years later, Brüka Theatre puts the definition of literature to the test, with shining results.
Mary Zimmerman’s Tony-nominated stage conception of the classic poem uses the lens of nine myths to explore the timeless truths of human relationships and the changes they affect on lives. Some myths are more familiar than others, but in this production, directed by Scott Beers and Mary Bennett, all are told in a way that feels relevant and moving.
It would be silly not to mention, at the outset, the technical feat at the center of Metamorphoses. Headed up by Lewis Zaumeyer’s ambitious set design, the Brüka people have outdone themselves and constructed a giant pool that takes up almost the entire stage so that the action takes place in two feet of water. What’s more, the whole shebang is staged in thrust, so the actors are floating, dripping and splashing within inches of the audience on three sides.
The difficulty and sheer audacity of doing something like this on a community stage are eclipsed only by its effectiveness. Make no mistake, the water is no gimmick. In a play that is literally about change, nothing could have more symbolic value than water. It is constantly moving and swirling, taking different forms, giving life and drowning it out. The tangible benefits, however, are even greater than the symbolism. Water turns the actors’ movements into something like a ballet, lending them natural fluidity. In life, we take water’s properties for granted, but onstage, its sounds and movement have an unexpected dramatic impact, ranging from soothing to violent and conveying everything from peace to danger.
It would be selling the production short to chalk up all its success to the set’s bells and whistles, or to David Simpson’s fantastic light design, which provides visuals that are endlessly interesting. Thanks to a solid cast, deft physical direction, and excellent source material, Metamorphoses manages to be funny, sexy, sad, euphoric, scary, touching and illuminating. Though it features many strong performances—its 11 actors handle upwards of 50 roles—it’s not about character, acting, plot or narrative. While all those things are present, they seem secondary to the tone, mood and atmosphere that the play uses to examine relationships and personal growth. What’s more, it turns a mirror on the audience, which is something to which all art should aspire.
Metamorphoses is not only engaging, but it also feels remarkably fresh throughout. The constant reshuffling of the deck to tell new stories makes boredom an impossibility. If a given chapter doesn’t grab you, there’s always another around the corner, employing the actors and water in fascinating new ways.
Theater at its best offers something that no other medium does. Brüka’s Metamorphoses is probably not perfect, but it is as complete and well-rounded a production as you will find. Best of all, it scratches a deep-down itch only theater can reach. This is an utterly unique experience, and it’s one you’ll never get at your neighborhood cineplex. It’s community theater not just at its most intimate, but its most communal. While the actors are the ones in the pool all evening, it is the audience that leaves feeling revitalized.