“Metamorphosis” spells change — whether by biology or magic — and change is at the heart of Mary Zimmerman’s gloriously imaginative play Metamorphoses . Based on a mythological epic work by the Roman poet Ovid, Zimmerman’s classically rooted yet thoroughly accessible 1998 hit also encompasses those timeless human experiences that mark our journey through life: love, loss, greed, conflict, redemption and death. The characters are mortals and gods — gods who prove both cruel and merciful.
Metamorphoses, which begins performances at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, is also the third annual collaboration between the University of Miami’s Department of Theatre Arts and the Arsht. As with The House of Bernarda Alba in 2011 and Girls vs. Boys last year, the Theater Up Close season opener gives UM students and some faculty professionals the chance to work side-by-side with South Florida theater pros at the city’s premier performing arts facility.
“This is such a plus on so many levels,” says Henry Fonte, chair of UM’s theater department and the director of Metamorphoses. “The students come here to work at this fabulous facility — with great professionals. It transforms them.”
Emily Madden, a UM junior who is featured in two key Metamorphoses stories, agrees.
“I’m so grateful to be working at the Arsht. It’s so exciting to go there every day, to a place where so much is happening, where national tours are coming through,” she says.
For Scott Shiller, the Arsht executive vice president who is coproducing the play with Fonte, collaborating on such a challenging production not only advances the center’s educational mission but allows the Arsht to hire local actors and designers to work with the UM artists “in a mutual language, understanding and trust.”
When audiences enter the Carnival’s infinitely malleable black box space, they’ll see a theater that has undergone its own metamorphosis. As with Zimmerman’s original Chicago and New York productions, the centerpiece of K. April Soroko’s set is a pool. Measuring 16 feet long by 12 feet wide by 2 feet deep, the pool becomes a transformative place: Characters make love there, they perish, they face life-altering peril. Sheer white drapes and sail-shaped fabric surround the playing area, with its wooden deck and a balcony-walkway that appears to be made of weathered copper, while lighting and sound help transform the playing area into a constantly shifting space.
With Zimmerman winning the Tony Award for directing Metamorphoses on Broadway, Fonte deliberately avoided seeing previous productions of the play, knowing that it was on his list of pieces he wanted to direct one day.
“I’m going completely off of the text,” he says. “There are very few stage directions, and I told the actors not to read them.”
Fonte’s vision is of a world very much like Miami, surrounded by water.
“My original image was of the Mediterranean, of that hard landscape of Greece against it,” he says. “The temperament of the people is to have a completely open heart. These people are very direct. They tend to talk by screaming at each other. There are entrances where people come on at the height of their anger. And every metamorphosis takes place by stepping into the water. … I hope that the audience is just gripped by the stories. They’re fantastically emotional stories.”