How to start? We begin at the beginning, with the creation of the world. True, but too portentous. Oh what makes a heart beat beat beat/So fast it wants to fly sings a trio in perfect 1940s Andrews Sisters’ harmony. And what makes a heart beat beat beat/So slow it wants to die? No, that’s a downer. Ah: The gods Juno (in a widow’s peaked feather hat worthy of Loretta Young), and Jupiter (wearing a velvet smoking jacket, carrying a pipe), argue about who gets the most pleasure out of sex, women or men. Juno protests it’s men, her husband, that it’s women. They decide to let Tiresias—now a man, now a woman—settle the dispute.
The dapper, dancing Tiresias—Honey, how I vant your lovin’—sides with Jupiter and is blinded by Juno for his opinion. (Jupiter gives Tiresias the gift of prophecy in compensation). From here on, gods and mortals careen into one another like an enormous domino construction.
Ovid’s tales of the extravagant heroics, love, vengeance, and infinite egos of the gods, are relocated, in this inventive and wacky piece, to wartime Britain, without, I kid you not, losing anything in the translation. From the moment you enter the theater lobby, where the cast is gathered around a cocktail bar piano, you feel in good hands. Ovidian graffiti has been found on the walls of Pompeii. The great poet is probably up there grinning.
A gramophone, military uniforms, girls with padded shoulders and upswept hair, gasmasks, the occasional Chermann accent, and fighter planes salt the production. Cupid, a uniformed British schoolboy with a catapult, is beguilingly part human, part puppet. Salmacis, the water nymph, looks like something out of an early Billy Rose water show. Her mack-truck-like pursuit of Hermaphroditus takes them bobbing up and down through parallel rows of painted cardboard waves…until they meld. (Yes, you see the result).
Jupiter cuts a lusty swathe through earth’s attractive young mortals by transforming himself, but is inevitably found out by the jealous Juno. In one instance, his conquest, Io, is turned into a cow. “Sprang from the earth, indeed!” spits Juno in response to Jupiter’s explanation, “Pull the udder one.” The costuming, using familiar objects in offbeat placement, is simply terrific. Io’s moosic is memorable.
Narcissus is a matinee idol who falls in love with his own image on the screen; literally, on a screen. The “soldier” Daedalus’ labyrinth, within his own comatose mind, is diagnosed in a Red Cross hospital scene whose comic mayhem is worthy of The Marx Brothers. Ariadne sits by knitting.
Original songs are lyrically smart and arranged pitch-perfect to the period. Good work, Lucy Egger. Incidental music is integral yet unobtrusive. Almost every member of the ensemble sings. Well. Several play piano. (A mere piano, drum, and cymbal deliver the illusion of full orchestration). The multi-faceted thespians are stellar with a wide variety of accents (you never know when a god will sound like Yorkshire or Liverpool), almost equally effective with physical comedy, and act as credible puppeteers. They are young, energetic, immensely likeable, and work together like the cogs and springs of an impeccably built watch.
Black and white films are an effective addition—well crafted, well played. Wait for Echo to walk into one! (Projection/Film Edit—Jonathan Davenport) A seemingly infinite array of costumes are attractively appropriate or improbably clever. Points for never hitting us over the head with symbolism.
The entire set consists of a number of standing doors, black on one side, white on the other, hefted and turned by the actors to resemble anything and everything, in collusion with captivating props. Modesty buoys the piece. And the puppets! The buffet of imaginative characters in their variable forms is a feast. Take note, Basil Twist, Samuel Wyler (Puppets and Props), is an artist with whom to be reckoned.
Peter Bramley, who conceived, adapted and directed this production, is a formidable talent. Not only does he manage to maintain the integrity of the stories while making them more accessible “The concepts of a Hero or a Monster were very real during these times,” he leads us through an ebullient evening without letting the message burden the medium:
Narrator 6: Tiresias, what does the future hold?
Narrator 6: A war between whom?
Tiresias: Between nature and man.
The world is changing. Heaven and everything under it will take on new forms, as will earth too…Ovid
Bramley’s attention to detail and urbane touch helm a work that is intelligent, absorbing, outrageous and really, really funny.
Photos by Tom Packer:
1. (L-R) Hannah Pierce, Eloise Secker, and Mabel Jones.
2. Mabel Jones
3. Hannah Pierce
4. (L-R) Mabel Jones, Hannah Pierce, Jonathan Davenport, Jo Dockery. Center, Alex Packer.
Pants on Fire’s Metamorphosis.
Winner of the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award
Conceived and adapted by Peter Bramley after Ovid
Devised by Pant’s on Fire
Directed by Peter Bramley
Jonathan Davenport, Jo Dockery, Mabel Jones, Tom McCall,
Alex Packer, Hannah Pierce, Eloise Secker
The Flea Theater
41 White Street
Ovation Tix- 212-352-3101 or www.theflea.org
Through January 30, 2011