Lookingglass Theatre: “Metamorphoses”

Water has a mysterious power in Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses.”

The actors spend much of their time wading, floating, swimming, bathing and splashing in a swimming pool — not always for any logical reason that has anything to do with the action in the stories.

The very presence of the water seems to heighten the yearning spirit of these characters from Greek mythology. When they’re racked with sorrow or laughing with mirth, the water coursing around their limbs or spraying into the air is like emotion taking visible form.

Originally performed by Lookingglass in 1998, “Metamorphoses” eventually wowed critics and audiences on Broadway, earning Zimmerman a Tony Award for best direction. It’s one of the great achievements of Chicago theater, and now is as good a time as any to bring it back. (Actually, this is the first time it has been performed inside Lookingglass’ current quarters at the Water Tower Water Works.) Some of the actors from the original 1998 “Metamorphoses” are back, along with some newcomers.

What remains so remarkable about “Metamorphoses” is how smoothly and naturally it shifts back and forth between light, almost slapstick comedy and heartbreaking sorrow. As sudden as these changes can be, they never feel abrupt or jarring. Watch how the opening story about King Midas turns tragic in one terrible second, our laughter catching in our throats.

“Metamorphoses” is a collection of stories, but they fit together perfectly. With her playful adaptations, Zimmerman zeroes in on the essential elements that make each of these ancient tales relevant for us 21st-century humans. In many ways, this new production of “Metamorphoses” is a rerun, but it’s still fresh and dazzling.

“Metamorphoses” continues through Jan. 6 at the Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago. Call 312-337-0665 or visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org for tickets and details.

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