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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Metamorphoses — Arden Theatre

Metamorphoses -- interiorFor all that can be commended in Doug Hara’s production of “Metamorphoses” for Arden Theatre, and there’s plenty, the show ultimately suffers from lack of attention to its most important element, Ovid’s stories as dramatized by Mary Zimmerman.

Style and form abound on the Arden stage. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set is stately and gorgeous, especially when it looks burnished under Thom Weaver’s sensitive lighting or action focuses on the impressive pool that dominates downstage center.

Olivera Gajic’s costumes are no less lovely, even when they are scant. Gajic blends beauty and wit in her creations. With the exception of the Bo-Peep dress Leigha Kato dons as Pomona, Gajic joins Bembridge, Weaver, and Hara in providing a world of shimmering elegance, one that seems to be in another place and time fit for gods and figures from myth.

In the case of “Metamorphoses,” beauty is only skin deep. Admiring the designers’ work, Hara’s eye for composition, and his graceful choreography, you see how beautiful and transporting theater can be. Even in scenes involving beggars and crude characters, Hara’s physical production has luster and a taste than transcends the ordinary and makes “Metamorphoses’s” settings feel special and otherworldly. As far as creating mood and atmosphere is concerned, Hara succeeds superbly.

But Ovid was first and foremost a storyteller, just as the Arden prides itself on story telling. Ovid’s medium was words. The words may be laden with imagery and spark imagination, but they primarily related moral tales of how a situation, be it enlightenment or a god’s intervention, changed a character in a significant way, for better or worse.

These stories are the crux of “Metamorphoses,” whether by Ovid or Zimmerman, and their lasting power as attention-getters need to be the first consideration.

If they were, you don’t see it on the Arden stage where everything in Hara’s “Metamorphoses” is gorgeous but sterile. Pageant replaces emotion. Physical traits and vocal tricks overshadow communication and sincere dialogue. Theater trumps drama. And most of “Metamorphoses” registers as dull and without purpose. The Arden production is cosmetic, handsomely so, but it lacks juices. Anything that needs to be acted in muted or lost in the graceful undulating of diaphanous fabric. With the exception of Brandon Pierce’s Vertumnus, no character registers as compelling or worth watching. As much as I constantly say theater is more important than literature when you’re doing a play, I know stories and themes provide the meat of a script. Hara became so formal and so in love with visual effect, he forgot to put enough emphasis on the main matter at hand, the mythological tales Ovid chose to tell and Zimmerman elected to include in “Metamorphoses.” One revels in some of the loveliness of characters’ movement, Lindsay Smiling, lifting and moving Clare O’Malley as if she was a choreographed game marker for instance, but not enough to make up for the feeling that you’re watching nothing. The stories unfold more in their narration than in their miming, so you often have the feeling you’re being read to instead of having something important take place before you.

NealBoxPierce is not alone in breaking through this virginal theatrical coldness. Christopher Patrick Mullen manages to give personality to more than one of his characters, and Steve Pacek supplies some infusions of humor, but in general, we are at the type of entertainment “The Music Man’s” Eulalie McKechnie Shinn might devise, lots of grand and fine-looking posturing with little depth or entertainment value.

Like much that puts form ahead of content, Hara’s “Metamorphoses” seems dull. Its weakness at making us care about Ovid’s tales or the precepts they impart contrasts with the gleam of the set and lighting and adds to the dramatic austerity.

Still as the drama is, one of this “Metamorphoses’s” attractive assets is its movement. The timing of several pieces is elegant. The actors move fluidly and take the small steps, arm motions, lifts, and other dancelike motion seriously. Perhaps too serious. More seems practiced and rehearsed than nonchalant.

Because of the motion and the various uses of the pool, including the ritualistic mopping of the handsome boarded deck to keep it safe after splashes have moistened it and made it slippery, are so meticulous or different, Hara’s “Metamorphoses” gives you something to watch. It just doesn’t have much heart.

In Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” performed at Villanova last month, the story of a woman, her longings, and the task of extracting her from Hades came vividly to light. At the Arden, you listened to the story with total neutrality. It was a tableau unfolding before you instead of romantic tale of ardent love, mutual risk, suspenseful possibilities.

Metamorphoses -- interior twoThat’s the thing. Most of us know the Eurydice myth and all it entails. Orpheus goes to Hades to the Underworld and rescues her and restore her to temporal life on Earth. The gods dictate Orpheus can lead Eurydice from Hades but, as in the Biblical case of Lot, he may not look back to her as they proceed from the Stygian depths to terra firma. At some point, as they are tantalizingly near to their destination, Eurydice calls Orpheus’s name, and he turns.

No matter how well you know that story and its inevitable outcome if you stick to the myth, you need to feel tension as Orpheus and Eurydice make their ascent. You have to feel some stake in their success and some fear that something will go awry.

At the Arden, nada. Clare O’Malley’s Eurydice is born aloft. A careful distance is kept between her and Sean Bradley’s Orpheus, but there’s no feeling for Eurydice either way. You don’t feel like Eliza Doolittle as Ascot or Young Patrick at Auntie Mame’s fox hunt. You’re excused from caring. The story is told, not acted. The danger has no emotional consequence.

Story after story, the same thing happens. Because of how brightly Alex Keiper is dressed as Pomona, and because Brandon Pierce gives character and substance to her thwarted suitor, Vertumnus, that tale causes a frisson of interest. You enjoy watching Pierce going through his anxiety and coming up with his next ploy to cleave Pomona to him. At last, someone is having fun with a part and succeeding. I noticed Pacek attempt in vain to create sparks of life. Mullen generated the right kind of attention and even humor on occasion. But Pierce, true to his name, broke through. There was a jauntiness to his Vertumnus. He made you care about each entreaty to Pomona and whether or not it broke the concentration she lavished on her orchard to notice a mere human.

Vertumnus succeeds by assuming a character for whom Pomona has concern to whom she wants to give the fruits and other produce she so lovingly nurtures. I was stunned and relieved to feel satisfaction about the outcome, to feel anything really, and I thank Pierce for that.

Pierce is emerging as one of the finest and versatile actors in the region. From nascent but potent takes in Azuka’s “Dutch Masters” through to his natural, gentle turn in Simpatico’s “Milk Like Sugar” and his breakthrough as a raft of well-played characters in Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s “Fair Maid of the West,” Pierce has not only shown quality but evolved. He can play anyone from the most elegant to the most down and dirty. His calling card is authenticity, and he demonstrated how well it serves him in this “Metamorphoses” in which only he gets past the inert nature of the staging and provides a character you can enjoy and in whom you can invest some feeling.

Pierce also does well in a scene with Lindsay Smiling in which the two are older and younger gods testing people to see if they will extend charity to them.

No one is “Metamorphoses” lets down the team or does anything that add to the show’s barrenness of emotion.

All readings are good, although there is one actress whose voice was a tad grating in reading Zimmerman’s classically composed lines. All movement is meticulous. Some is even precarious, and I did not see a false move or broken frame. I always liked it when characters found themselves in the water and was impressed with some of the swimming. I thought Krista Apple-Hodge was particularly regal is her robes and posture as Aphrodite. Impressed by much and admiring of all that went into setting up Ovid’s tales, I sat as a static observer rather than an involved auditor. Christopher Colucci’s music, beautiful and evocative, occupied me as much as the enactments. I found I could pay attention to both without feeling as if I was missing something on stage during instances when my ear dominated my eye. Most motions were, after all, repetitive, and if I missed a lift here and there, it was of no moment. Scenes in the water and in which an actor varied the monotone and steady rhythm of the production made me more rapt, which was why I kept rooting to Pacek to have a moment important enough for his livelier style of playing to take hold and kept looking for how Pierce was going to approach his parts.

With all of the positive elements gracing this production, I wish I could like it better. Alas, story should come first and unfortunately it rarely materialized in a palpable way.

“Metamorphoses” runs through Sunday, November 1, at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A 7 p.m. performance is scheduled for Sunday, October 18. Tickets range from $50 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or by visiting www.ardentheatre.org.

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