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Hit and Myth

Theater Preview: Metamorphoses


Published October 25, 2006 at 8:56 p.m.

Magazine headlines promise to uncover the "myths" behind dating, dieting and other hot-button topics. Over time, the word has come to mean a false assumption - something to be debunked. But for more than 2000 years, Greek myths have fired the Western imagination. The pantheon of mischievous gods and the mortals they manipulated have inspired philosophers, painters, poets, psychologists and playwrights.

Classical language and culture once formed the core of American education. Today, many students and adults don't know a Greek god from a Greek olive. The Weston Playhouse production of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses is an engaging and entertaining refresher course in distinguishing Ceres and Ceyx from the Kalamata. More importantly, the play reminds us that foibles, frailties and passions haven't changed much over the millennia. Myths set on Mount Olympus or in the fires of Hades still resonate today.

Love was the favorite emotion of Roman poet Ovid, circa 8 A.D. In Metamorphoses, he retold ancient myths focusing on love, from the familial to the forbidden, as the primary agent of change. Sometimes love ennobled and endured; other times it destroyed.

Chicago playwright Zimmerman - who is also a professor at Northwestern University and a 1998 MacArthur "genius grant" recipient - specializes in creating contemporary plays from historical and literary material, such as Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks and Marcel Proust's novels. To stage a modern Metamorphoses, she adapted a handful of Ovid's stories. Familiar characters include gold-obsessed King Midas and doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice. Lesser known are arrogant Erysichthon, stricken with hunger by Ceres for chopping down a sacred tree, and generous Baucis and Philemon, a poor couple who take in gods disguised as beggars after their wealthy neighbors have turned them away.

The swift-moving play - one act, 80 minutes - opened just days after September 11, 2001, and became a surprise Broadway hit. The humor and pathos struck an elemental chord that proved cathartic for New York City during its darkest days. "The moment of metamorphoses is so excruciating, but then it can produce something new," Zimmerman reflected in a 2002 PBS interview with Bill Moyers. "If you take the long view, we've suffered incredible disasters and transforming events, and yet story goes on, narrative goes on."

"Theater is imagination confronting the human condition," says Weston's Steve Stettler, who is producing and directing the play in Vermont. After its local run, the show hits the road, with performances in Johnson, Burlington and Randolph. Zimmerman set the action of Metamorphoses around a large pool of water. While the effect of this was "mesmerizing," says Stettler, "the unusual experience of actors confronting real water sometimes pulled your focus from the actual story." A portable pool proved impractical for touring anyway, so Stettler conjures liquid with props, lighting and sound effects.

"We love shows like Metamorphoses," he says, "where you have to bring your own imagination to it to see the whole picture."

Every year, the October play is also at the heart of Weston's vibrant educational outreach programs. The offerings' vigor and variety draw participants from across the state. A math teacher from Canaan, in the Northeast Kingdom, has attended the daylong workshops with scholars, trying to improve his school's extracurricular drama program. Students from St. Albans have braved the three-hour bus ride, each way, for the school matinee. (The Flynn Center usually hosts a student matinee on the morning of Weston's Burlington performance, but the theater was not available this year.)

Demand for school-theater partnerships in northern Vermont may outstrip supply. Vermont Stage's three school matinees of Woody Guthrie's American Song, in late January, are already sold out - the FlynnSpace seats only 150. Weston's programs serve about 3000 students annually, supported by grant sources ranging from the National Endowment for the Arts to Weston's own Vermont Country Store. The programs' ongoing success helps to ensure continued funding. Meanwhile, well-publicized fiscal struggles have kept major northern Vermont companies focused on survival. And schools often find arts programs lose out in budget battles.

This fall there are two school matinees of Metamorphoses on the road (in Randolph and Keene, New Hampshire) and six in Weston, including one interpreted in American Sign Language. To help prepare students for seeing the play, teachers receive the script, an exhaustive study guide and invites to the spring workshop.

A lively post-show "talkback" with the director and cast follows each matinee. After a performance last week, 7-12th graders from Ludlow and Fair Haven queried cast members about how they change costumes so quickly (practice, and backstage helpers), which myths they like best (Baucis and Philemon is a favorite) and how long they've been rehearsing (just two-and-a-half weeks, but up to 12 hours a day). All seven actors play multiple roles, and they demonstrated the process of creating distinct voices and physical behaviors for each character. They encourage budding performers: All seven got their start in high school drama clubs.

From its start in 1937, Weston has been led by "teacher-educators," according to Stettler, who trained young artists alongside the pros. In 1988, leadership passed to producing directors Stettler, Malcolm Ewen and Tim Fort. They looked to move beyond the traditional summer stock model and bring "the broadest, most enriching series of theater-related productions and projects throughout the year to a wider audience."

As part of the expanded mission, Stettler continues, "It was essential that we build an education program that wasn't just training young artists, but was in fact enriching the experience for the theatergoer." Events for adults evolved along with those for students. For example, study guides are available to all patrons for every show. A winter discussion series encourages reading the plays before seeing them. Director's talks and after-show talkbacks occur frequently throughout the season. "Our audiences have become more adventurous because we have included them in the process of the adventure," says Stettler.

The greatest concern, and challenge, is engaging "the younger generation, who are being exposed from the beginning to technology and not to the written word, the imagination, the live performance art," Stettler says. "It's incumbent upon those of us who believe in the magic of theater to make sure . . . that magic captures them early."

One of the most innovative programs, now in its fourth year, is called Page to Stage. High school classes rehearse scenes from the fall play and present them at the Weston Playhouse, using the professional set and lights. Teachers get training at the spring workshop, and artists work with the kids at their schools. After performance night, the students attend a matinee, and receive a final visit from Weston staff to debrief.

A primary goal of Page to Stage is to encourage the students to "confront the plays from their own point of view," Stettler says. "Then let them see our production not as the answer, but as another alternative."

Interpretations at performance night, held in Weston last Monday, were spirited and diverse. Three classes participated this year: English students from Twin Valley High School in Wilmington, a mythology class from Black River High School in Ludlow and drama students from Green Mountain Union High School in Chester. Five Midases took the stage. Twin Valley's Emma Ferguson made a particularly elegant Queen Midas - her royal disdain glittered like her earrings. Green Mountain's Kenneth Baker flourished an elegant wine glass as he portrayed a patrician and preppy cocktail-hour King.

"You could see through five different Midas performances how each group took it in a different way," Baker, 17, reflects. "It inspires you to think of all these different ways that one can view something that's written, when normally you think of something that's written as being purely concrete."

Green Mountain's Brianna Beehler, 17, says a classroom visit from a Weston artist helped her portray Hades as more sympathetic and forgiving towards Orpheus. "I had this image already in my head," she says. "It made me go back to the book and then bring it to the stage in a different way."

The audience was packed with supportive parents and cheering classmates, but some of the most enthusiastic responses came from the professional cast. After the performances, the pros gave the teen thespians notes and suggestions. They praised specific choices of gesture and movement, joking about what they planned to steal. They seemed refreshed by the students' overall spirit of comedy and camaraderie. "I think that's something we can all take from it," actress Susan Haefner remarked.

Arts organizations often see school programs as tools to build future audiences. Education Director Rena Murman casts the net wider. "If Vermont wants to keep its young people, it has to be dynamic and it has to have things to make them want to stay here," she says. Stettler himself first came to Weston as a college student.

Black River literature teacher Colin McKaig thinks that acting out scenes from the modern Metamorphoses helped his students get more engaged with the myths. "I'm always on the search for making mythology more relevant," he says, "To demonstrate to kids that it's everywhere - it sort of crawls and seeps in and out of pop culture all the time."

The modern relevance of the stories surprised Green Mountain student Baker. "It's amazing to see how these old myths, which have been around since forever . . . still apply to our lives today," he says.

In the play, Zimmerman frames just one tale overtly in the present. Sporting Ray-Bans and swim trunks, Phaeton reclines on a raft and tells a poolside therapist about his ill-fated attempt to borrow Dad's car. Dad is Phoebus Apollo, a.k.a. The Sun, and his car is the chariot that drives the fiery orb across its appointed daily path. The boy ignores his father's warnings that he can't handle the horsepower, and the therapist spouts Jungian jargon deconstructing the ensuing disaster.

The scene is hilarious and insightful. And Zimmerman's influence lingers: She almost dares you to look at myths in a new way. Rereading Ovid's original story of Phaeton and Apollo after seeing the play is a revelation. It brings to mind another green son, whose inexperience and hubris have brought terrible destruction.

The father tries to dissuade his son from overreaching:

What you want, my son, is dangerous; you ask for power beyond your strength and years . . . Suppose you had my chariot, could you keep the wheels steady, fight the spin of the world?

The son can't control the reins, and the suffering caused by his crash ricochets around the globe:

The great cities perish, and their great walls; and nations perish with all their people: everything is ashes . . . we are hurled into ancient chaos.

One myth down, another hundred or so to go. What else did Ovid know about the trouble his distant descendants would be making 2000 years later?