Pants on Fire's Metamorphoses
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
January 7, 2011
“Pants on Fire” is a silly name for a theatre company, which is a good thing. If you’re going to dramatize a collection of stories about gods and their vengeance written around the year A.D. 8 it’s best not to take yourself too seriously! The joy of Pants on Fire’s Metamorphoses is that the seven wonderful actors in the company never do. Using their creative ingenuity and sheer buckets of imagination, they frame Ovid’s tales in the settings, clothing, and imagery of England during World War II. The result is engaging, visually exciting, and loads of fun.
The play begins in pre-show with the actors harmonizing around a piano in the Flea Theater lobby so you feel like you’re at a crowded bar with some off-duty soldiers and their ladies. Once the show begins in earnest, they move through the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, embodying Roman gods in conflict and the mortals who were seduced and punished by them. They do this within a 1940s' wartime framework. Echo, for example, is a chatty Rosie-the-Riveter before she gets silenced by Juno. Atlas is a Nazi interrogator. Narcissus is a silver-screen heart-throb. They utilize lots of singing, musical instruments, inventive physicality, strong character choices, puppets, and half a dozen flats that the actors are constantly moving to create new topography. But beyond the period choice, nothing is off-limits. The play sometimes feels like we’re in Charlie Chaplin territory, other times in a sci-fi flick. From Sesame Street to a jazz club, from modern dance to Saturday Night Live, they go there. The central theme of Metamorphoses is transformation (one thing being turned into another). The stories tend to repeat themselves as most are driven by one god’s lust and another god’s jealousy wreaking punishment. So what’s astonishing is that the thing that becomes the throughline, to hold the audience’s attention, is the suspense over what crazy way the actors will come up with next to tell the story. How will they transform themselves and the space? What will they do next? And we were completely hooked: gasping, chuckling, heart-broken… this play was so much fun!
Pants on Fire is a London-based company that first presented this play in the Edinburgh Fringe this past August. Their strong performance in Edinburgh earned them the Carol Tambor Theatrical Foundation’s annual sponsorship for a NYC production. The company is led by artistic director Peter Bramley. He also conceived, adapted, and directed this excellent show and deserves commendation for such sharp vision. Each member of the ensemble who devised and performs the play is absurdly multi-talented. Their names are Jonathan Davenport, Jo Dockery, Mabel Jones, Tom McCall, Alex Packer, Hannah Pierce, and Eloise Secker (many of whom are only recent college grads). Packer and Davenport are also responsible for the sound and film design (respectively). The array of delicious period costumes were designed by Samuel Wyer. The ensemble’s investment in the production as a whole is evident in their performances.
The play works because these actors, in their utter lack of self-consciousness, dive into each transformation with abandon. They aren’t afraid to be too silly or too melodramatic and the result is magic and engaging. Pants on Fire’s Metamorphoses deserves all the accolades from Edinburgh that brought it to New York. Go see it at the Flea before January 30th because, as Ovid tells us, nothing lasts forever in its present state.