This sparkling retelling of some of the most famous myths from Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses is one of the wittiest, most artfully constructed and performed shows I’ve seen in quite some time. Imported from the UK after a run at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, where it received the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award, Pants on Fire’s Metamorphoses is a play with music (smart, tuneful, impeccably harmonized if sometimes eerie Andrews-sisters style) that manages to be both episodic and thematically coherent. in that way it reminded me of a complex piece of classical music written in a series of linked movements.
Theseus battles the Minotaur while Echo and Narcissus meet their fated ends; Apollo pursues Daphne, and the naiad Salmacis chases the comely future sex god Hermaphroditus; Juno sets hundred-eyed Argus to keep watch on Jupiter’s beloved Io, transformed into a cow, but Jupiter is always getting somebody pregnant anyway, and so on. Using puppets, film, and plain flats which the superb actors move about in delightfully clever fashion, making themselves appear and disappear as if by magic, the show tells these stories with precision, lighthearted wit, and, especially in a few of the musical numbers (most written by Lucy Egger), strong feeling.
And did I mention that adapter/director Peter Bramley and the Pants on Fire troupe have set the whole thing in wartime Britain? Bombs, gas masks, staticky radio broadcasts, a Gestapo interrogator…through 20th century imagery these frightening elements neatly evoke the ancients’ sense that they were always at the mercy of the heavens. And they help convey the great theme: that all existence is change. “Time is not the traveler’s fourth dimension—change is,” wrote William Least Heat-Moon, but for Ovid, in that sense, all of life is travel, on earth and in the heavens: “nothing in all of the cosmos can perish,” says a narrator, “but takes on a different shape.” The Gorgon’s blood transforms seaweed into coral; Arachne is turned into a spider; people become constellations, trees, flowers; bodies fuse into one.
What slides the message home is that the stories by which Ovid proves his contention about change are nearly all set in motion by love, lust, and their attendant jealousy, and these are the greatest drivers of theatrical action we have. “What will you do for love?” goes the refrain throughout the script.
So much in our culture goes back to Greek and Roman mythology, with Ovid one of the most important conduits of those tales. This show, infused with the modern (film, audio recording) and the ancient (music and masks, puppets, cardboard ocean waves), is a vivid reminder that while all may ultimately be change, the forces that make us human have remained the same from ancient times through the present—and the ancient myths remain not only relevant but alive. What is Project Runway but an update of the weaving competition between Arachne and Minerva? What is Cheaters but the schemings of Juno renewed? Where do we get the very word “narcissist?”
(Photos courtesy of the Pants on Fire website. Painting: Apollo and Daphne by John William Waterhouse.)