by Lynn on March 26, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Streetcar Crowsnest, Carlaw and Dundas, Toronto, Ont. until April 9, 2023.

Written by Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour

In collaboration with the Performers.

Adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Set and costumes by Tiana Kralj

Lighting by Simon Rossiter

Music and sound by Johnny Hockin

Cast: Rob Feetham

Dean Gilmour

Daniel R. Henkel

Neena Jayarajan

Sukruti Tirupattur

Theatre Smith-Gilmour have been producing thought provoking movement-based work that challenges the status quo for 42 years and they have done it brilliantly. Metamorphoses 2023 is a perfect example of their imagination, societal concerns and moral compass.

If Metamorphoses 2023 has a familiar ring it’s because it’s based on Ovid’s huge poem Metamorphoses that he wrote in 8 CE. Metamorphoses 2023 has been adapted to reflect our world in 2023.  It’s written by Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour, the creative couple behind Theatre Smith-Gilmour, a theatre company that has quietly been challenging the status quo for 42 years.

Ovid’s epic poem is mainly about change. From the show’s information, here is a quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Everything changes. Nothing dies. The soul wanders here and there, occupying whatever body it chooses.”

As the show information further notes: “Survival is at the core of Metamorphoses 2023,a bold and contemporary adaptation of Ovid’s epic poem, that realizes the original text’s mythic elements through mime, illusion, spoken word, silence and south Asian dance.

In Ovid’s poem, there are about 200 characters over many stories. For Metamorphoses 2023 writers Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour have chosen characters from stories who have made transformations either in gender or from human to other forms of life, usually because the gods might have been miffed. The Greeks and the Romans believed in myths and the Gods to rule their worlds. The theme of changing genders so reflects our world with reference to transgender people, but it also reflects that this was referenced 4000 years ago in Roman literature. Times change and yet they don’t.

The Stories. We start with Tiresias.He was born a man.One day he saw two snakes copulating and he hit them with his stick.This angered the Goddess Hera and she turned Tiresias into a woman.As a woman Tiresias married, had children and served Hera.

After seven years Tiresias was turned back to a man. But the gods weren’t finished. Juno and her husband/brother (don’t ask) Jupiter were in an argument about who enjoyed sex more, the man, as Juno believed, or the woman as Jupiter believed. They asked Tiresias because he had experienced sex as both a man and a woman. Sex also factors heavily in Metamorphoses 2023. Tiresias said that women enjoyed sex more than men.Again, that angered Juno and she blinded Tiresias.Jupiter couldn’t reverse the curse so he gave Tiresias foresight…which stood him in good stead in seeing the future.

Another variation on this theme of switching genders is the story of Hermaphroditus. He was once a handsome youth who attracted the love of a nymph named Salmacis. She prayed to be united with him forever and the gods, answering her prayer, in their own cheeky way, by merging their two forms into one.

Hermaphroditus became the god of hermaphrodites and of effeminates. The story certainly has echoes of the present-day term of transgender, so the title, Metamorphoses 2023 is justified in its modern applications.

There certainly are other stories that reference our modern times, to the point that there is a content warning that Metamorphoses 2023 has adult themes, language and depictions of rape and violence.

There is the startling story of Tereus and his wife Procne.  She had just given birth to their son and wanted her sister Philomela to come and see her. So Tereus sailed to bring her to see her sister and nephew. Only when Tereus got back some time later, without Philomela, he said that alas Philomela had died. Procne was heartbroken. But several months later she learned her sister was alive and held captive in a prison in the forest. When Procne went to free her sister she learned that Tereus had raped Philomela and made sure she would never talk by cutting out her tongue. Both sisters plotted to get even with Tereus in a really brutal way. And in another change, all three characters were turned into birds by the Gods. The gods were always getting involved. Actaeon accidentally saw the goddess Diana naked and she turned him into a stag.

The stories are rich in language, complex in implications and philosophical in themes.  And they are really terrific yarns. The stories might be 4000 years old but they have always been intriguing to theatre companies and I’ve seen several versions of the Metamorphoses over the years. Theatre Smith-Gilmour is the latest to tackle the stories.

The Production. The production is beautiful. as one would expect of Theatre Smith-Gilmour.Tiana Kralj’s set is bare except for five black chairs which have some props or clothing on them.When the lights go up we are looking at five actors miming putting on make-up, getting ready for their show. They look like they are wearing black yoga pants and tops for easy movement. Kudos again to designer, Kiana Kralj. They are barefoot.

Over the course of the various stories, different props will be used to cleverly illuminate a character or parts of the story.

Dean Gilmour –half of theatre Smith-Gilmour with his life and art partner, Michele Smith—plays Tiresias and acts as a narrator to navigate the dense world of these stories. To suggest that a Tiresias changed from a man to a woman, Dean Gilmour takes off his black top revealing a bare chest. Then puts on a red bra that has ‘appeared’ from nowhere, applies a slash of lipstick and a long wig. Voilá, a woman.

When Hermaphroditus becomes both sexes with Salmacis, Neena Jayarajan who plays her beautifully, comes up behind Rob Freetham and put her two arms under his sweater and pushes her fists forward creating two breasts. There is also some funny business going on between his legs to indicate he had the sex organs of both sexes in one body. Wonderful, inventive beautifully creative and simply created. If there is a quibble, it’s that some times a story seems slight although the re-enactment of it is really creative in its simplicity.

Besides being expressive and compelling actors, Neena Jayarajan (playing among others: Juno, Philomela, Salmacis and Diana) and Sukruti Tirupattur (playing Procne, Alcyone and Echo) are also accomplished Bharathatyam dancers.

Rob Freetham as Narcissus, Hermaphroditus and Actaeon is an astonishing mime even being both the aggressor and the put upon in a scene. He’s so creative in this piece and in all the previous work I’ve seen him in.

Daniel R. Henkel plays Jupiter with an easy self-absorption, preening, smug, haughty. As Tereus he is duplicitous to his wife Procne, violent to Philomela and devastated when he is punished for his crime of rape and imprisonment.

Michele Smith directs with an equally gifted hand for using economy to cut through to the heart of the stories, and realize their theme, message and core.

Theatre Smith-Gilmour has been perfecting their considerable craft for decades and this show, Metamorpheses 2023is like a gift to behold.

They have been working on this show since 2018 and even though the pandemic interfered and delayed them, they are tenacious in holding true to their vision and staying the course. They have a wonderful cast who are learning from masters in Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith.

I think it’s a terrific show.

Theatre Smith-Gilmour in association with Crow’s Theatre present.

Metamorphoses 2023 plays until April 9.

Running time: 80 minutes.

End note: I’m glad at least of the one sheet of the cast and their parts that Crow’s provides. I do wish Crow’s had not only a full programme we can download but also print properly so we can actually read it. It just can’t be this difficult. And no I don’t bring the phone to aim at the QR code. I have to turn off the phone, right, so bringing it makes no sense.

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