Midas, a businessman in a suit, sits on a red upholstered chair that stands in a pool of water, under a crystal chandelier. He holds forth on making money while his daughter, all in white, lays on the perimeters of his world, annoying him with interruptions. He enjoins her to "be still," and this realistic complaint turns into metaphoric gold.
So begins the Lookingglass Theatre Company's production of Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman's exploration of Ovid's myths, which continues to transcend time and place, blending the comic and the terrifying, the real and the mythic, in language, movement, and scenic elements.
A real pool, 22' by 18', dominates Dan Ostling's single set. Action takes place more often in this set than on it, and those seated in the front row of the thrust space in Chicago may sometimes feel this show as well as see it.
Occasionally, events spill onto a wood deck that frames the pool the way narration frames the stories. Stage right behind the deck, double doors open to admit characters and suggest exterior views, creating an anachronistic Greek reference for this play based on Roman myths. Stage left, a flat of painted clouds adds an element of frank theatricality.
Zimmerman presents myths of transformation: a daughter turns to gold, a loving couple turn into trees at the moment of death, a mourning wife and her dead husband become birds. And without scene or scenery changes, the water, easily mutable, provides a vehicle for these metamorphoses. Always functional, never decorative, characters drown, make love in it, and free associate in therapy sessions that transpire in the pool. Rain falls on a miniature boat while three characters sit on the deck and move oars in the water to suggest a real one. Sometimes turbulent, sometimes tranquil, the water dynamically interacts with the characters who inhabit it.
Lighting designer T.J. Gerckens separated the deck and water space, at times lighting only the actors. By removing all light from the water, the pool surface became a mirror that received reflections from the deck, or a glass floor. A music stand and lit candles were among the objects that seemed to stand on the smooth surface. More often, however, he used low sidelight to catch the top of the water without revealing the shallowness of the pool. "Once you hit that bottom, the magic will go away," he reflects.
Gerckens adjusted lights to actor motion and emotion, designing a flexible plot he altered considerably as he responded to performances that evolved during rehearsal. "One of the big things when working with Mary is how much the motion talks to you," he explains. For the legend of Orpheus, he lit the face of Eurydice, until Orpheus turns. At that instant, he placed the light behind her, so she is pulled into darkness. Zimmerman, whose work is dance-influenced and often sculptural, repeats that critical moment, and Gerckens lit the separation the same way both times. He lit the myth of Pomona with warm back and sidelights, suggesting the darkness of a tale of incest without revealing the actors entirely.
Coloring the clouds to match the mood of each scene, the lighting designer coordinated efforts with Mara Blumenfeld, whose costumes referenced classic myths while drawing on images from contemporary culture. Some gods wore green floral headdress and garments were draped on some of the women.
Clouds and clothing turn "today" and bright yellow for the tale of a guy who drives his dad's car into the sun. Phaethon, in sunglasses and yellow swim trunks lies on a yellow raft while he tells his shrink the difficulties he's been having with his father. Hermes appears in a leather motorcycle jacket. Aphrodite, goddess of love, wears a red strapless gown and smokes a cigarette.
For Blumenfeld, the trick was finding fabrics with both the aesthetic and practical qualities she and Zimmerman wanted. They would have liked silks, but because of the chlorinated water, she opted for synthetics that would hold up and remain colorfast; she also used some linens and cottons.
Sound designers Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman worked with composer Willy Schwarz, whose score utilized an assortment of East Indian instruments, including shatravenia, sarod, and tambura, along with traditional European percussives, strings, and flutes. Timing cues to light as well as movement, music became a catalyst for ongoing transformations, underscoring moments of transition from one world to another.