"I am speaking to you now of how bodies are transformed into different bodies" says a Churchill-like voice, crackled and fuzzy as if coming through an old wireless radio as his words are projected on a screen center stage, over an image of Earth. So begins Pants on Fire's adaptation of Metamorphoses , currently running at The Flea Theater. Though the proclamation sounds sweeping and serious, this production is anything but. Rather, Pants on Fire's Metamorphoses interprets the theme of transformation as might a vaudevillian or a circus performer: the ensemble transforms itself into slap-happy caricatures of musicians, puppeteers, and entertainers of all kinds, transforming the tales in Metamorphoses into fodder for their fun-making. Director Peter Bramley and his company have produced some highly theatrical, well-made, entertaining work. The company sets Metamorphoses in 1940's Britain, during WWII. Narcissus is a Bogart-esque film star, Cupid's a knicker-wearing schoolboy, and Echo bears a striking resemblance to Rosie the Riveter. These references aid in making the stories more accessible, something Pants on Fire strives to do in all its work and certainly achieves here. They are also adept at creating a specific, non-realistic and wonderfully whimsical world to play and perform in. Nearly everything the versatile cast of seven does is humorously stylized and exaggerated. Set and sound is low tech but inventive: music is either performed live by the actors or pumped in through an old-fashioned phonograph. The actors vocalize all other sound effects, at one point creating the sound of a passing plane they’re ‘watching’ fly by, effectively adjusting their volume as it approaches and quickly recedes.
The set is a thing of theatrical genius. Designed by Samuel Wyer (who also designed puppets and illustrations in the piece), it primarily consists of a series of five or six panels that the actors move around the stage at regular intervals. These panels transform the tiny Flea theater into multiple spaces, suggesting everything from a lake to the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Most fun is when actors shuffle the panels around the space, revealing someone where no one had been a moment before, as if by magic.
Pants on Fire is all about using the theatrical tools at their disposal, and they work them to their fullest here, incorporating song, dance, puppetry, body doubles, and inventive costume pieces, among other things. At one point, a woman lifts her skirt, revealing green tulle ruffles underneath which, thrown over her head and combined with her brown tights, transforms her into a pretty convincing tree.
While the entire ensemble is formidable, I find Eloise Secker, (who plays the aforementioned tree among other roles) particularly exceptional. With chameleon-like ease, she morphs from one role to the next, unrecognizable at times. She can mould her face like putty, putting it to use as anything from a young spurned lover to a severe political villain. I particularly enjoy her portrayal of Medusa as a dowdy housewife in a flowered nightdress.
Despite the fact that many of Ovid’s stories end tragically, Pants on Fire's telling of the tales keeps them light. The troupe's Metamorphoses takes the concept of transformation and enacts it, actively transforming set, sound, and story from one thing to the next, joyfully celebrating the possibility inherent in the idea that things are always changing.
That is, until the play’s final moments, when the piece takes a sharp left turn. Tiresius, the blind oracle, is asked what the future holds. He responds, “War...between nature and man!” He continues to describe the world’s return to chaos, due to man’s inharmonious dealings with nature, as images of natural destruction appear on the CS screen. All of a sudden, we are meant to understand Ovid’s stories as warning tales of our future doom. It is so idiosyncratic with the rest of the play that it feels tacked on, almost as an afterthought.
But, thankfully, the moment is brief, and the play ends not with it but with the crackly Churchill voice, reciting Ovid: "The world is changing. Heaven and everything under it will take on new forms, as will the earth too, and everything here upon it, as even we will, for we are a part of it also, not merely bodies, but winged spirits." To my ears, it strikes a more hopeful tune, as does the rest of the play. Its actions speak louder than its tales.
So, despite the random global warming tie-in, I say go see Pants on Fire’s Metamorphoses before this jolly band of Brits fly their way back to England like the winged spirits they are.