Jittery New Yorkers on edge from one too many crises are finding solace for their souls at a unique Off Broadway production that opened in October to rapturous reviews. Metamorphoses, now at Second Stage Theatre, has been adapted by writer/director Mary Zimmerman from the myths of Ovid (including the stories of King Midas, Phaeton, and Orpheus and Eurydice) into a relatively brief but magical evening. Using story theatre techniques while avoiding any hint of preciousness, Zimmerman’s production is a potent demonstration of the healing powers to be found in these stories of betrayal, folly, love lost and found, wrenching separation, and profound reconciliation. Not for nothing did Variety reviewer Charles Isherwood call the production as "the theatrical equivalent of a visit to a day spa."

Thanks to a team of longtime collaborators, Zimmerman’s production is one of the most visually seductive in town. The action is staged around (and sometimes in) a pool, which takes up most of the deck space. Other scenic elements--Dan Ostling is the set designer--include a doorway, a second level for entrances and exits, a drop depicting a cloudscape, and a chandelier hanging over the water. Lighting designer T.J. Gerckens’ work is notable for its lush color palette, strong light-dark contrasts, and sensitive cueing.

Speaking about the design, Gerckens quickly points out that the pool played a key role in many of his decisions. "The pool really dictated most of the plot in two or three different ways," he says. "There was the necessity of isolating the deck from the pool, which dictated the direction of the light and how sharp the focuses were. I was very specific about delineating the space between the pool and the deck. At times, you want the pool to go into a black void. Also, lighting from certain directions works very well on the water--it has a real mystery of depth when it’s lit right." If done wrong, he adds, the bottom of the pool is all too evident: "Downlight looks dreadful on the water, and you need cool colors. If you put a warm color on the water, it looks sickly and unpleasant." However, he adds, "it was a real treat to work with the water. At first it was scary but it was great to have that ever-moving reflective surface."

To isolate the actors on the stage, Gerckens used Lee 202 and 203, to get a clean white look that worked at very low levels (sometimes as low as 12%). In addition, he says, "Good old-fashioned R80 [Primary Blue] really helped set the tone for scenes set on the deck." He also credits R80 "for making the water look that unbelievable blue color." Other colors came into play as well. For example, R316 Gallo Gold was a key component in the Midas sequence; each time actor Raymond Fox, playing Midas, touches an object (or another actor), it is frozen in a golden downlight; as he wanders around the deck, each forward step is delineated in a shaft of gold. At other times, Gerckens shoots beams of color through the chandelier, which diffuses the light and adds another layer to the stage picture. Much of the lighting design’s color comes from a system of Wybron Coloram scrollers attached to a set of ETC 50º Source Fours and aimed at the cloud drop, as well as a pair of City Theatrical Beam Benders, also attached to Source Fours, to skim the water.

The design of Metamorphoses moves from full stage washes, often in color, to exquisitely conceived tableaux in which actors are isolated in the darkness. These latter scenes were often the most challenging, says Gerckens. "It was difficult to find the point where the light is low enough to create a feeling of mystery but bright enough so you don’t get a headache. Tech rehearsals were slow, because those aren’t the kind of levels that you can rough in." Because of this, he says, the techs tended to drag on. "From the moment the piece starts, the lighting is constantly changing," he says, who adds that he worried the about actors "freezing to death" as they went in and out of the pool. ("One actress showed for techs in a wetsuit, when her costumes weren’t critical to a scene," he adds.) Still, he says, it takes time to find such precisely calibrated levels: "Sometimes 17% was too low and 20% was too high." On the other hand, one imagines that the lengthy techs left the designer with time to work out a system of cues that swiftly, imperceptibly transforms the stage time and time again. (For the record, the New York engagement was created mostly using ETC Source Fours; control was provided by an ETC Obsession. Additional lighting equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase.)

Gerckens, who also designed Zimmerman’s production of Measure for Measure in Central Park this summer, is based in Marysville, OH, and spends much of his time working at CATCO, a Columbus, OH-based theatre company. He is one of Zimmerman’s frequent collaborators and he singles out the other designers, including Ostling, Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), and Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman (sound) for their collegial approach. Speaking of Metamorphoses, he says, "This is a show I can watch forever." A good thing too, since the production originated at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, then played the Berkeley Repertory in Berkeley, CA; the Seattle Repertory Theatre; and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles before opening in New York. Of Zimmerman, he says, "Mary’s style is very warm, human-centered, and spiritual. So much art is nihilistic, but it’s always exciting to work on her pieces."

Metamorphoses, having extended in its limited run, is at the Second Stage until December 2.

Photos ©2001 Joan Marcus