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A CurtainUp Review
Pants on Fire's Metamorphoses

Without harmony between nature and man, the natural order of things will be destroyed. A Metamorphosis will begin.—Tiresias.
Metamorphoses- Pants on Fire
Mabel Jones
(Photo: Tom Packer)
When Ovid first began his enormously influential poem about the history of the world from a mythological perspective, Metamorphoses, I doubt he could have imagined the treatment it would receive at the hands of director Peter Bramley and the intrepid Pants on Fire company. Then again, change is integral to Ovid's message, and there's no arguing that Pants on Fire embraces that concept with enthusiasm. And whether it fully works in translation, enthusiastic (and excellent) performance goes a very long way.

I'm not the first one to have noticed this excellence, of course; the show won the 2010 Best of Edinburgh Award, the highest honor available at the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It takes just the first few moments to understand why.

This production sets Ovid's famous tale in World War II-era London, and with a wild, rollicking script full of surprises — from puppets to Monty Python-like musical interludes — that retells the story in an often funny, sometimes poignant and always fascinating series of vignettes corresponding to the myths retold in the original poem. The running time is an hour and a half, but it hardly feels that way during the performance, so engaging is the story being told.

Part of what makes this work is the set and costume design, which are both creative and clever — the minotaur outfit, in which a gas mask wearing minotaur on crutches menaces Theseus, is particularly effective, but it’s one of many examples of form suiting function. Four simple dividers are used to such good effect, from creating seascapes to movie theaters to hospital rooms, that some of the interest comes from waiting to see what scene will be created next. At one point I wondered if the production wouldn't be better served in a larger space ("cramped" would be a kind adjective to describe the size of the playing area), but upon reflection I'm not so sure. In a way, the limited room helps add to the mutability of the scene-which, naturally, is part of the point.

All of this pales in comparison to the cast though, which is astonishingly (and universally) good. Whether portraying gods or mortals from ancient or modern times, manipulating puppets or playing instruments, the facility of each performer is impressive. But even more important is the complete commitment to the director's vision, which is admittedly quirky. While the moments of real pathos are repeatedly undercut by jokes and Bramley's obsession with these satiric shots threatens to overwhelm the show with silly Benny Hill-style antics, it's the cast which holds him back from his inclination to excess. The quality of each actor is so good that it's difficult to pick out one from the group. This is as good an ensemble performance as you're likely to see.

Even the cast can't overcome every obstacle, and the show does strike an occasional discordant note. The 1940s era conceit seems good on paper-the capriciousness of the gods bears more than a passing resemblance to what London residents must have experienced during the Blitz with the randomness of who lived and who died-but in practice, there isn't much done with the idea. And the message relayed by the blind seer Tiresias at the end of the play, which makes reference to climate change and nuclear war, seems like an oddly misplaced leap into the future, a much too simplistic conclusion to a much more complex play. But you won't remember these issues when you leave the theater; you'll remember a fascinating and exceedingly well-acted performance, and that's well worth the price of admission. Highly recommended.

Pants on Fire's Metamorphoses
Conceived and adapted by Peter Bramley after Ovid
Director: Peter Bramley
Cast: Jonathan Davenport (Jupiter/Daedalus/Perseus), Jo Dockery (Juno/Salmacis/Nurse), Mabel Jones (Cupid/Io/Nurse/Semele), Tom McCall (Apollo/Narcissus/Icarus), Alex Packer (Tiresias/Hermaphroditus/Atlas/Theseus), Hannah Pierce (Echo/Tiresias(as female)/Andromeda/Nurse), Eloise Secker (Daphne/Mercury/Medusa/Ariadne)
Original Songs: Lucy Egger
Lighting Design: Ralph Stokeld
Projection/Film Edit : Jonathan Davenport
Sound Design: Alex Packer
Designs and Puppets: Samuel Wyer
Running time: One hour, thirty minutes
Pants on Fire Company at the The Flea Theater, 41 White Street, (212) 352-3101
From 1/5/11 to 1/30/11; opening 1/9/11
Tues.- Sat. @ 7 p.m., Sat. @ 3 p.m., Sun. @ 5 p.m.
Tickets: $42.50
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based o
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