The pool was always there, even if the script wasn't. "I'd always wanted to do something in water. Always. The play never existed without the idea of water," says theatrical auteur Mary Zimmerman, speaking of the much-exercised rectangle of waist-high water which dominates the set of her production of Metamorphoses. The show—an empathic and sometimes whimsical retelling of Ovid's myths—recently moved from Second Stage, where it proved a resounding and surprising success, to Broadway's Circle in the Square.
Metamorphoses had humble origins, beginning as an experiment with a group of college students at Northwestern University, where Chicago native Zimmerman teaches. "I thought I'd test out the idea of doing something in water and see how feasible is was, and that ended up being this little show at Northwestern. I did the Ovid myths because they interest me, because I love them.
"I certainly wasn't thinking of a project with a long future."
But a long future is what she got. The title's ever-rising fortunes have transformed Metamorphoses into the best known creation of the prolific Zimmerman, who is a towering figure in Chicago theatre, visible enough nationally to win a MacArthur "Genius" grant, but whose elementally theatrical stage concoctions are still relatively unknown to New York theatregoers.
Following the Northwestern run (which was called, simply, Six Myths), the show was remounted in 1998 at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company, a troupe the director co-founded. She retained three of the players from Northwestern and culled the remainder of the cast from the Lookingglass ensemble. Familiar faces are an imperative to Zimmerman, since she begins each rehearsal process without a text, armed only with an idea and a group of willing performers. "Because of the way I work, it requires that I collaborate with the people I've already worked with," she explains. "The process is so risky. In rehearsal, I have to have people who know it's going to be all right. They know there will be a play on opening night."
She elaborates: "The Lookingglass isn't just an artistic group, it's a social group. These are the people that I tend to eat Thanksgiving dinner with and Christmas dinner. That's the best aspect of this for me, actually. I'm still doing it with my friends. "
The brief run that Lookingglass planned grew into an eight month stay at the Ivanhoe Theatre. The show only closed when the pool became to difficult to maintain. (For the curious: the water is filtered and chemically treated each day, but changed only every two weeks. It is not heated during the performances, meaning the pool is its coldest during the play's final moments.)
Since Chicago, Metamorphoses has been seen at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum. In each city, the reception was exultant. Success was again achieved Off-Broadway. But as the show began previews just eight days after Sept. 11, the applause was significantly different in tone—keener, sadder, more healtfelt. Critics consistently described the play as "cathartic" and "healing." Hardened New York theatregoers responded with naked emotion. In Zimmerman's precise, yet guileless dance of water and light and words, beaten down citizens had found a salve to grim weeks of fire and dust.
"The play did gain resonances from those events, there's no question about that," says Zimmerman. "There's this thing that art does, where we witness death and loss but we survive it. We experience it vicariously through the performance, but we survive it. Also, many of the metamorphoses that happen in these play,"—among the better know stories are those of Orpheus and Eurydice, King Midas, Ceyx and Alcyon, and Eros and Psyche—"although they involve phenomenal loss, always create something new and unimagined and unlooked for. It gives these characters a new life in a different way, as a bird or as a river.
"There's great comfort in seeing something so old," she continues. "I think its age has something to do with the response; the thought that it was ever thus, that change is inevitable. And that there is, in this world, always production through that loss.
"It's a sad fact of life, but a true one, that even grief does end—can end."