Raleigh Ensemble Players
@ Cardinal Gibbons Performing Arts Center
Closed Aug. 16

Forget the current political argot. If you’d find the original agents of change, seek the gods.

In the world’s various mythologies, a vast array of natural forces, social dynamics, physical conditions and difficult emotions were controlled by their anthropomorphized representativesmost of whom resembled us a great deal. If earlier humans were unable to master the winds, the seas or even their own feelings, they conjured up a class of superior beings who had those powers and who could intervene on mortals’ behalf. Without a doubt, most of those intercessions involved change as well: from poverty to wealth, danger to safety, sickness to health, loneliness to love, defeat to victory.

The title of Ovid’s Metamorphoses refers to his classical belief: “All things are brought into being with a changing nature.” But the changes he documents go well beyond the petitioned expedients above. In his version of the Midas myth, greed results in the transformation of a human into a lifeless (if valuable) object before it then turns a boastful millionaire into a sorrowful pilgrim. After Erysichthon denudes a sacred forest, his unbounded ambition delivers him to his metaphorical fate: to suffer vast, insatiable hunger. In the stories of Baucis and Philemon and Myrrha and Cinyras is love’s ability to transfigurefor good and ill.

Ovid’s injunction? Our own drives, feelings and deeds ultimately transform us. If the gods do anything with mortals, they mainly clarify changes that have already occurred, by placing what we’ve truly become into the forms most fitting.

Raleigh Ensemble Players’ potent, protean production clearly deserved more than a single weekend to decant. Repeated renovation delays at the company’s new 213 Fayetteville St. address forced the company’s hand: After seven months, it stood to lose the whole cast if performances didn’t take place now.

Fortunately, they were ready, to say the least. The gilded, empty picture frames, gold and gray drapes and Doric columns, contrasted with inelegant black pipes on Thomas Mauney’s multi-story set, which suggested an Elysian backstage placed behind a stage-long pool that lay between actors and audience.

In the sometimes wry world of this new version of Mary Zimmerman’s award-winning 2002 Broadway adaptation, light is introduced when a distinctly less-than-Promethian Zeus (Chris Milner) lights a ciggy on the second floor. More impressive illumination comes from the waves of light that bounce along the top of the stage when reflected by stage lights from the water, a running visual commentary on the passions enacted throughout the show.

Glen Matthews’ pensive direction and original music, movingly played by cellist Michelle Wang, added to the show’s deliberate pace, fittingly punctuated by more comic episodes. Whitney Griffin’s infectious laugh and Eric Morales’ storytelling abilities animated the telling of Pomona and Vertumnus. Christine Rogers’ psychiatrist dryly commented on Jesse Gephart’s memorably neurotic Phaeton, the most famous son ever to take dad’s wheels out for an inauspicious spin.

Sean Brosnahan and Griffin moved us in their enactment of Alcyone and Ceyx, a sequence Matthews gave some of the show’s most gripping stage imagery. Before that, John Honeycutt ably turned a fatuous Midas into one that was more conscience-stricken. Brosnahan and Barbette Hunter made a poignant Orpheus and Euridice, though the audience’s responselaughterat the reframing of their last moment together spoke to a miscalculation in directorial vision. Brenda Lo’s reading of Fames, the hunger god, was creepy; her Myrrah was increasingly horrified at what she was becoming. Lori Scarborough Ingle impressed as a tortured Psyche.

If a write-in campaign isn’t already underway to revive this thought-provoking production for a longer run, let me start one. Now.

Master Class

Theatre in the Park
Through Aug. 23

We’d like to celebrate a different sort of transformation in Master Class at Theatre in the Park. But in directing herself in this production, Lynda Clark lost a needed second set of eyes to correct a character interpretation of legendary opera diva Maria Callas that’s too narrow in its bandwidth.

Terrence McNally uses a master class Callas taught at Julliard in 1971 as a transitional place for both her and her charges. While the young artists she plays cat and mouse with hope to move upward through it into professional careers, for Callas the room is one in a series of steps downward, in the years after she was fired, very publicly, from La Scala.

Antonio Delgadillo ably acquitted his supporting character, Tony, first with egotism and then humility. Rozlyn Sorrell gave savor to a luminous soprano who steadily improves under Callas’ acidic influence. Julie Florin’s arch professionalism was welcomed as Danica, the accompanist.

Clark ably gives us the character’s small, sharp edges as she harangues the audience, her pianist, a stagehand and her students. She also sings better than anticipated. But the room-filling greatness of spirit and artistic achievement that provoked a world to once call Callas “La Divina” was too much missing in Clark’s work on Friday night. We needed more than a glimpse of it to showand dramatically counterbalancejust how far Callas has dwindled in her present state. As things stand, we sense that we see her looking back at her own greatness more than we ever see that greatness for ourselves, an issue better resolved in the 1998 production of the work at Playmakers Rep.

Correction (Aug. 21, 2009): Per comments below; Sean Brosnahan played Orpheus.