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Pericles, Metamorphoses tap the power of myth

In Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman's Tony Award-winning adaptation of the myths of Ovid, a contemporary psychotherapist makes such declarations as, "Myths are the earliest forms of science." The role serves to satirize psychiatric and academic jargon, but has a point in the way myths and fables evolved as the earliest means of explaining human nature and the universe.

The mass media like to put the "mythic" label on seemingly everything from star athletes to failed politicians to comic-book superheroes. People or events with genuinely mythic status, however, touch on the kind of universal truth you can feel in your bones, ones that sound familiar even if you've never heard them before.

Two flawed but rewarding theater productions strive to attain that mythic dimension. Georgia Shakespeare stages Pericles, an oddity from late-career Shakespeare that deliberately echoes Oedipus, The Odyssey and other classical works. Meanwhile, less than an hour north of town, Gainesville Theatre Alliance remounts its spring production of Metamorphoses' tales of transformation. Metamorphoses boasts the stronger material, Pericles the more lavish production, and each presents genuinely haunting imagery.

No doubt director Richard Garner did not approach Pericles lightly. It's one of the biggest curiosities of Shakespeare's canon, with two of the five acts probably not even written by the Bard. Pericles (Joe Knezevich), young prince of Tyre, begins by daring a life-or-death riddle to win the hand of an exotic princess, but uncovers a sinful secret. Fleeing for his life, he leaves his kingdom, finds love after one shipwreck and loses it during another tempest.

Pericles comes across neither as an epic hero nor as a tragically flawed figure, but as kind of a fool who runs from physical danger, political duty, parental responsibility and the world itself by entering a near-catatonic state near the end. Knezevich conveys the role's naiveté, fear, devotion and despair eloquently enough that the character makes sense, even though we want to smack him around.

Despite featuring such a maddening leading man, a superfluous narrator (Park Krausen) and a dearth of memorable poetry, Pericles features plenty of stirring spectacle and unexpected laughs. (Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom calls Pericles "the only play in Shakespeare I would rather attend again than reread.") The cliffhanger perils of Pericles' virginal daughter Marina (Amelia Hammond) bring the second half into sharp focus. Held prisoner at a brothel, her silver-tongued goodness causes even the most debauched to change their sinful ways. Hammond manages to make the goody-goody role seem like a real person, despite her near-saintly innocence.

Georgia Shakespeare pulls out the stops for the production, from musician Klimchak's ethereal compositions to Sydney Roberts' globe-trotting costumes, which touch on traditional fashions from Japan to Scotland to 1970s-era pimps and hos. When billowing sheets and strobe lights evoke a tempest at sea and a coffin floats away on the top, Pericles offers an archetypal tableau of mortality that seems even more powerful than the text.

In May, Georgia Shakespeare remounted its 2006 production of Metamorphoses, which won so much acclaim it's surprising that Gainesville Theatre Alliance (a creative collaboration of North Georgia colleges and theater groups) wasn't too intimidated to stage its own version in the spring. It may seem unfair to contrast the two, since the Atlanta playhouse featured the bigger swimming pool, the larger performing space, and the more seasoned actors and touched on more dimensions.

Nevertheless, Gainesville Theatre Alliance's version, directed by Jim Hammond, holds its own in comparison. True, the actors are mostly students, although always-reliable Atlanta veteran Brik Berkes plays major roles such as King Midas. Youth can be a benefit, as the actors' athleticism gives Metamorphoses a robust quality and some striking Cirque du Soleil-type images. Orpheus (Derrick Ledbetter) dangles from fabric above the underworld and Aphrodite (Callie Stephens) swings on a circular trapeze and encircles Myrrha (Kayla Fikis). The show's lightly choreographed moments give it an international flavor.

The cast also conveys a sense of youthful discovery of classical tales that brings out their timelessness. They're comfortable with formal diction, but less steady with broadly comedic or contemporary characterizations, such as Lynwood Bradley's portrayal of drunken Silenus as a partying college student.

The close quarters of Gainesville State College's Ed Cabell Theatre cultivates more intimacy with the audience. The underwater entrances of Poseidon and his aquatic minions (costumed like sea monsters) have a nightmarish quality as well as an amusement-park-ride tendency to splash people in the front row. Some vignettes prove stronger than others, but overall Metamorphoses succeeds at inviting us to hear tales of people who transform into birds or trees as expressions of true love, and apply the lessons to our own lives.

Gainesville Theatre Alliance's Metamorphoses is a haul from Atlanta, but you can drive there in less than an hour and won't regret the trip. In the program, Hammond says, "This production would not have been possible without guidance and friendship of Richard Garner and Georgia Shakespeare." Maybe the counsel of peers can be even more rewarding than divine inspiration.

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