‘Metamorphoses 2023’ gives Ovid the physical theatre treatment

Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s new Metamorphoses adaptation has smart staging but lacks a strong point of view

What: Metamorphoses 2023
Where: Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Ave.
When: Now, until Sun. April 9
Highlight: Simon Rossiter’s tour-de-force lighting
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s stylistic inventiveness.

THEATRE SMITH-GILMOUR has been around Toronto stages for a long time. For over four decades, it has adapted classical texts into movement-heavy theatrical adaptations drawing on mime and clowning.

Its Metamorphoses 2023, which opened Friday at Crow’s Theatre, takes on a mighty old text: the highly influential Ancient Roman poem Metamorphoses, Ovid’s mammoth work featuring an assortment of myths all hinging on some kind of metamorphosis of character. On a moment-to-moment level, this new adaptation is characteristically engaging and inventive; however, its episodic structure and minimalist design keep it from entirely cohering.

The five-person cast begins the show on chairs. They appear to be actors getting ready for a performance: they do their hair, fix their makeup and put on costumes. This section is clearly contemporary, not Ovid, but it’s still a tale of metamorphosis as it foregrounds the transformation an actor has to go through to take on a role.

Then come the myths. Over its 80 minutes, the show blasts through a good few, covering ground from Narcissus to Pentheus and Bacchus to Alycone and Ceyx. And though there is some text, the show’s default mode is European mime: exaggerated physical reenactments and oral sound effects abound, providing ample playfulness and a corridor for the performers to psychologically distance themselves from the characters they are representing. There’s also a touch of Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form originating in Tamil Nadu and featuring complex, percussive footwork.

The show revels in the act of storytelling. Set and costume designer Tiana Kralji dresses everyone in neutral black and keeps the stage mostly blank, so the myths do not immerse; instead, we’re continually reminded of the actors behind the characters. Throughout, in fact, Metamorphoses 2023 seems more interested in interrogating the ritual of myth-telling than interrogating the myths themselves.

Simon Rossiter’s tour-de-force lighting runs perpendicular to the simplicity of the set and costume design. His dramatic, tightly focused looks help director Michele Smith quickly establish location despite the blank stage. The sea plays a large role in many of the Metamorphoses myths, and the patterned blues that Rossiter uses to invoke the ocean lend Metamorphoses 2023’s underwater sequences some serious emotional heft.

Smith’s director’s note sheds some light on why the adaptation includes the myths it does: “The never-ending war of the sexes is the major theme of our adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” she writes. And this mostly comes through — the majority of the myths in the show either include misogyny or a gender transformation.

But the show’s investigation of gender stays confined to the myths. It never bleeds into the show’s contemporary framing and it is not present in the show’s opening or closing sequences. Similarly, the show’s minimalist set and costume design do not help with sewing this thread across the different myths. So, while Metamorphoses 2023 makes some progress toward illustrating the breadth of misogyny depicted in Metamorphoses, it never gets around to exploring an instance of it in any real depth. This leaves the show unmoored and occasionally grasping for the contemporary relevance its title implies it’s going for.

In some ways, though, Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s stylistic inventiveness is, on its own, enough to make the show relevant. Classical adaptations, collectively devised scripts, mime: none of these things are seen very often in Toronto. So, even if I don’t think the Metamorphoses 2023’s script completely coheres, the way it’s presented is more than a little refreshing.