When it's OK to get back in the pool

The Lookingglass Theatre Company's restaging of director Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses," a stunning show that socked me right in the gut last weekend, sure makes the case for the validity of the reprise.

I have to confess resistance to theaters going back over familiar ground. It's tempting for the producing entity, which probably has the set and costumes in storage, and its tempting for the directors, writers and actors, as it's always easier to reshape, or update, or reconceive a little than to pay a trip to that tyrannical and terrifying locale known as scratch. Given that Zimmerman is in the throes of working on "The Jungle Book" for the Goodman Theatre, under the watchful eye of Disney Theatricals, you can see why she did not want simultaneously to invent another production from whole cloth.

But you, the ticket buyer, shouldn't have to care about such nuances of artistic management. Like me, you've perhaps been burned before by some theater deciding that such-and-such has another year of life, or by a group of actors remembering what fun they had with a hit before and deciding to do it again, in the forlorn hope that lightening can strike twice. Often, denial will set in concerning how much older everyone has become, or how much an aesthetic has changed, or even how the world is new.

Theaters can convince themselves that people really want to see something again — "It's a classic," they declare — when a reprise is more for business purposes. That mentality is bad enough at Christmas when at least the "tradition" tag line can be justified, to a point.

Sure, I understand the argument that other forms of performing arts are different. If you see and love a new piece at the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, you can rest comfortably knowing that it will likely form part of a repertory. And certain opera productions can kick around for years, traveling back and forth across the oceans.

But in my experience, theater shows started from nothing more than a script, or a genuinely fresh idea, produce the most exciting rewards.

But "Metamorphoses" still is an eye-popping exception.

Why? Firstly, this was, and still is, a masterful show, a fusion of text, directorial conception and human performance that many have tried to copy, yet none has succeeded. Secondly, this is a show that belongs to Chicago and represents at least one (lesser-appreciated) branch of its current aesthetic to the theater world at large. Thirdly, its themes and its mode of performance are remarkably free of chronological strictures. The ages of the characters are indistinct, and its landscape timeless in orientation. And fourthly, it has been more than a decade since "Metamorphoses" was here.

Yet none of that explains the intensity with which this restaging has landed. Only the strictly personal holds that key.

It is fascinating how many of Zimmerman's cast members have been willing and able to come back to their work in this show, a rich reminder of how important the ensemble tradition is to Chicago theater. Our slight remove from New York and Los Angeles makes it easier for artists to stay together. Second City realized that years ago; it's why they've never had a successful theater on either coast.

At Lookingglass, the actors are part of its identity; you can feel how these artists belong to these, their roles. The performers look remarkably the same (a reminder for some us to spend more time at the gym), but now that they're older (and an older actor is almost always is a better actor), their emotional entanglement with these characters is at a new level. "Metamorphoses" is about change and loss — the older you get, the more of that you know.

One last thing before we get mushily parochial. Unlike other, similar Chicago creations, "Metamorphoses" played for a year on Broadway. It gained polish and an awareness of the needs of an audience that can be acquired only by performing night after night. These older, wiser, sadder actors have stepped right back in to that.

“Metamorphoses” is through Nov. 18 by Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave.; $36-$70 at 312-337-0665 or

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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