Y’know, I haven’t actually read Ovid’s epic poem. Feeling uncultured, I certainly thought about it, wanted to have some proper grounding prior to seeing this production; but Metamorphoses is long, eh? Maybe someday. Through references, I’m aware of its deal, how deeply it’s worked its way into Western culture. Some of the ickiest bits of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, for example, feel directly lifted and transplanted.
Presented in association with Crow’s Theatre, there is plenty of intense brutality in Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s METAMORPHOSES 2023. There is rape and murder, deceit and discovery. Greek mythology figures prominently in this meandering highlight reel of legendary antics. We follow gods and humanity as they get ensnared in all sorts of mythic shenanigans.
A crucial theme is, quite obviously, transformation. Running throughout is the idea that people and the world they inhabit are not fixed, but in perpetual flux. This manifests in the craft of the show itself. We open on a line-up of chairs, one for each performer—Rob Feetham, Dean Gilmour, Daniel Henkel, Neena Jayarajan and Sukruti Tirupattur. Dressed in black, they primp, adjust and accessorize until, suddenly, the shift is complete—from the artifice, they embody vivid characters and ignite our imaginations to expand their world.
The format is very episodic, jumping through many scenarios—some more familiar than others. Director Michele Smith keeps us grounded with a communal vibe and minimalist aesthetic. There is a deep sense of cohesion and purposeful forward momentum. This adaptation (by Smith and the company) also ties narrative threads together by making a blind prophet, Tiresias, who has lived as both a man and a woman, an omniscient narrator. He is a deeply invested guide for us, having experienced adaptive transformations first-hand.
The few props are used to great effect. What really sells the transformative illusions—humans becoming animals, men becoming woman—is nuanced mime with intensely expressive faces. Of the many striking mise-en-scène, I was particularly impressed by how pools of water are suggested. Lighting designer Simon Rossiter’s elegant, undulating patterns are reinforced by the actors’ expressive body language during interactions with the effect. A vivid scene with Narcissus and Echo comes to mind. And a slow trickle of real water onto the spectral head of a drowned lover is particularly haunting.
There are many abject characters caught in harrowing situations. Through it all, though, we are given plenty of laughs to balance out the atrocities. My absolute favourite bit of comedy is a dinner party scene where a bunch of centaurs wreak havoc around a poor diner trying to finish her meal. Just when I thought the joke had run its course—some new absurdity would send me into hysterics.
As a concept, an 80-minute adaptation of this classic sounds gimmicky. One of the most endearing aspects of this production is how fully it embraces an underlying schtickiness without ever undermining itself. It is fanciful and goofy, celebrates its own theatrical quirks, but never at the expense of emotional truth.
There are moments still seared into my mind’s eye. Those dynamic faces are such an achingly human spectacle—fierce, hilarious and wretched.