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Trans-Continental Myths in Folger's African-centered "Metamorphoses"

Miss Kitty as the Water Nymph in Metamorphoses, Folger Theatre. Photo: Brittany Diliberto

Mythology may be rooted in national or ethnic identity, but the virtues or foibles of human nature it references make it universal. Folger Theatre's new production of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, seen Thursday evening at the newly renovated and reopened Folger Shakespeare Library, brought this point home. Director Psalmayene 24 has adapted the play, a selection of stories from Ovid's epic-like poem of the same name premiered in 2001, for an all-black cast. The latter is a first for the Folger, a fitting way to rebaptize the Elizabethan theater at the end of the company's first season since the lengthy renovation of the building began in 2020.

While the stories remain the familiar Greco-Roman ones, the production refracts the frame of telling through the experience of African-Americans. Zimmerman anchored her play on stories connected to the theme of water, with stage directions referring to an on-stage pool of water. Psalmayene 24 did without the on-stage water, initially for practical reasons in the newly reopened theater, transforming the pool into a remarkable character called the Water Nymph. Played with chimerical grace by Miss Kitty, the character opens the play in a costume recalling the tradition of African masquerade, the ritualized evocation of an ancestor or other powerful spirit (costumes designed by Mika Eubanks). Rattles on her wrists recall the rustle of water, and her movements in colored light or with aquatic-hued fabric suggest the ocean or a pool at different times. The presence of her unmasked face, covered with makeup calling to mind scarification practices or religious designs, is a perennial reminder of African origins.

Psalmayene 24 has a strong background in dance, which has a powerful role in the story-telling of this production (choreography by Tony Thomas). The opening sequence is a dumbshow, with the rest of the cast costumed in colorful outfits and vocalizing without words: they dance joyfully, seem to be captured and transported over the sea, sold into slavery, and then killed one by one. (The director writes of the brutal beating and subsequent death of Tyre Nichols, by five black police officers in Memphis in 2023, as a motivating factor in creating the production.) Against this backdrop, the Ovid stories take on new meanings.

Photo: Brittany Diliberto

The adaptation, enlivened with dance and music, is an ensemble affair: the program bills the actors equally, listing them in alphabetical order and not even identifying all of the roles they play. Jon Hudson Odom had hilarious turns as Midas, a clueless billionaire cursed for his unchecked greed (one of many parts of the play that resonated in our age); Orpheus, a strutting James Brown-like figure; and Apollo, the absent father to Edwin Brown's impetuous Phaeton. Zimmerman enhances Ovid's version of the Orpheus tale by quoting Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes." in Stephen Mitchell's translation: the poem added depth to the Eurydice of Billie Krishawn. As so often in Greek mythology, the gods are like people but even more bratty and irresponsible, ready to punish mortals for the sins they themselves commit with impunity: Gerrad Alex Taylor gave Bacchus the breezy air of a player, while Yesenia Iglesias brought animal terror to the character of Hunger.

The performance also offered a first glance of the renovated Folger Library. You now enter by ramps leading downward on the east and west sides, rather than through the old doorway on East Capitol Street. These new paths lead through garden spaces to the interior, an expansion opening up new exhibit and public spaces below ground. Although that means that patrons now have to go down a level, only then to have to up again to the Elizabethan theater, which has not been altered, the redesign does alleviate the crowding in the small room leading into the theater. The Folger Library will open completely to the public on June 21.

Metamorphoses runs through June 16.

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