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Water Works: 'Metamorphoses' dives into the deep end at the Guthrie

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In Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, water is so effective as a catalyst for vulnerability that you wonder why it doesn’t figure in more shows. Then you think, well, a 1,500-gallon onstage reservoir isn’t something the average company can be expected to just whip up.

Guthrie Theater
$29-$78

The Guthrie made it happen, and the effort was well worth it. The pool isn’t just a gimmick, but completely integral to Zimmerman’s vision. Encountering water in an unexpected context, we realize how its presence tends to heighten every experience, from intimacy to conflict to ceremony.

The 10 Metamorphoses cast members are repeatedly drawn into the pool as they enact Ovid’s classical myths, adapted by writer/director Zimmerman. Even if you don’t think you know Ovid, you’ll find yourself familiar with many of these characters and situations. That's not to say you'll necessarily guess how things turn out; on Thursday night, one audience member audibly gasped when Midas (Raymond Fox) learned the downside of his legendary Golden Touch.

Zimmerman’s vision for Metamorphoses has been acclaimed since its 1998 premiere; she’s brought it back in a new co-production between the Guthrie and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This cast spent months in rehearsal and performance out west, which means the show arrives in Minneapolis perfectly honed.

The performers hit every beat in a show that’s often amusing, repeatedly poignant, and constantly engaging. For all the heavy themes of sin and salvation, Zimmerman’s take on Ovid moves with a gratifyingly light touch.

It's a suitably sacramental show to open during Holy Week, though the Christian God hasn't proven quite as pliable as the more relatable pantheon portrayed here. When Eurydice (Suzy Weller) dies, the reclining ruler of the underworld (Rodney Gardiner) agrees to cut a deal with the desperately mourning Orpheus (Alex Moggridge): He can lead Eurydice back to life, as long as he doesn’t look back.

What does that myth mean? The actors toss the question back and forth, inviting the audience to contemplate multiple interpretations. Fundamentally, Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses is a celebration of the act of storytelling, of the way a shared narrative can provide a pivot for profound questions.

While the 90-minute show flows easily from one story to the next (some of the biggest laughs come from the transitional interludes, as actors push mops around the pool's perimeter), Zimmerman doesn’t overburden Metamorphoses with a connective framework, trusting the thematic parallels and her ensemble cast to hold the show together.

Her trust is well-placed. In addition to the aforementioned performers, standouts include Steven Epp, who can nail a comedic note without breaking a show’s spell. Also the dynamic Sango Tajima, whose multiple characters alternately charm and horrify, the latter when she becomes a feral personification of hunger itself.

The production design, similarly, makes an impact without being overwrought. Daniel Ostling’s scenic design presents a suitably surreal tableau for these gods and humans to wade into the waters of innocence and experience. They emerge transformed... if they emerge at all.

Metamorphoses
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
1.877.44.STAGE; through May 19