“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.”
Stylistically, Metamorphoses is somewhat presentational, with actors sometimes becoming narrators and commenting on the action. The language is both heightened and contemporary, with sly humor offering relief from the more tragic stories.
Shiller thinks Fonte’s approach to the play makes a difference in the way the 90-minute piece comes across.
“Previous productions of the play seem incredibly episodic,” he says. “Henry’s flows as one epic story.”
Usually performed by 10 actors, the Arsht-UM Metamorphoses has 14. Its professionals are Isabel Moreno, Peter Galman, Ethan Henry and Maha McCain. Madden, Timothy Bell, Javier Del Riego, Mary Hadsell, Annette Hammond, Adam Maggio, Timothy Manion, Alanna Saunders, Taylor Stutz and Maggie Weston are the UM students, all getting paid for their work at the Arsht.
For all of the actors, learning to perform in a pool has been a challenge. Water, for one thing, is not quiet.
“Water’s incredibly noisy,” says Bell, a UM junior whose multiple roles in the play include the tragic Orpheus. “You have to make sure to talk loud — and not talk when you’re moving.”
Moreno, who played the title role in the UM-Arsht The House of Bernarda Alba, has done numerous classical works in English and Spanish. Though she doesn’t get into the pool much, the water is still an element that requires her to be mindful.
“You have to be careful not to slip,” she says, “and not to talk when somebody is splashing. You have to get used to it and not be ungraceful.”
Henry, who earned a best actor Carbonell Award nomination last season for playing the title role in M Ensemble’s King Hedley II, gets to play two more kings in Metamorphoses. In Midas, he’s the royal whose lust for wealth trumps his avowed devotion to family, with near-tragic results. In Pomona and Vertumnus, he’s King Cinyras, whose cursed daughter Myrrha leads him down a road that no father and daughter should ever travel.
“Knowing that these stories end in grief of some sort, if I were to play the ending in the beginning, there would be nowhere to go,” he says. “Both characters have a greed that backfires.”
So far, he has loved working with Fonte, his fellow pros and the student actors. And he’s excited to make his Arsht debut.
“I like to play a lot of video games, so I compare it to that. You start at Level 1 and work your way up. With the Arsht, I’m on Level 20. It’s so good to do a play in downtown Miami,” he says.
Like his fellow actors, Henry will get soaked multiple times during a performance, only to dash offstage, change into a dry costume in a heated “incubator,” then reemerge ready for the next scene. Audience members who prefer a close-up view may find themselves in the same boat, minus the chance to change clothes, so the Arsht is putting a black towel on each seat that rings the stage. Not that Fonte is trying to make spectators identify with the performers that deeply.
“It’s not our intention for the show to be a water theme park,” he says. “We are choreographing all that splashing.”