‘Metamorphoses’ charms with Greek myths
Published: Monday, October 29, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 29, 2012 21:10
When I heard that Brandeis Ensemble Theater was doing the play Metamorphoses, the first thing I wondered was how exactly they would transform a man into a giant beetle on stage. Then I looked more closely at the posters. Wait, hold on, you mean this is not a play called Metamorphosis, based on the novella by Franz Kafka?
Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses was performed by the Brandeis Ensemble Theater from Oct. 25 to 28 in the Carl J. Shapiro Theater. As opposed to having a throughline plot, the play is a series of vignettes centering around Greek myths from the epic poem The Metamorphoses by Ovid. For those who took Latin in high school and are familiar with myths, they included the stories of Midas, Alcyone and Ceyex, Erysichthon and Ceres, Orpheus and Eurydice, Narcissus, Pomona and Vertumnus, Myrrha, Phaeton, Eros and Psyche and Baucis and Philemon. The vignettes ranged from funny to tragic, and they were connected by the theme of water. Water represents destruction, birth, creation and cleansing, all of which were present in the stories.
Each actor in the show played four to five different characters, creating an ensemble cast with no specific leads and fostering an environment in which actors were challenged to explore a range of characters simply with language, emotion and movement. Because the actors were often playing anthropomorphic characters such as Psyche, Hunger and Sleep, physicality was essential to the audience’s understanding of the conceptual characters. Although, admittedly, I am someone who considers going up stairs sufficient daily exercise, I couldn’t help but marvel at how physically taxing many of the movements seemed to be. The best example was the story of Erysichthon and Ceres, in which Ceres commands the spirit Hunger to invade Erysichton’s body, creating an unappeasable appetite that ends with his foot in his mouth (no pun intended). Mira Chaykin ’14 utilized her impressive gymnastic skills to personify Hunger, physically clinging to the back of Erysichthon while he moved around and performed tricks on the stage.
Considering the complicated web of characters involved, the acting was superb overall. Of course, some actors stood out above the rest, specifically Rebecca Miller ’13, Grace Fosler ’14 and Ray Trott ’16. These actors in particular were able to play a range of characters expertly and believably, while utilizing voice, physicality and emotion to tell their various stories.
The costumes, set and props were purposefully minimal partially due to the mythological content of the scenes. However, this did not stop designers from working creatively within these limits. Because of the way the show was cast, the costumes had to be relatively uncomplicated so actors could play multiple parts. Costume designer Deirdre Connelly ’13 employed subtle yet effective changes in the costumes to differentiate between characters. For example, to dress Midas’ daughter, an energetic, slightly hyper little girl, Connelly simply added a pink tutu under the elegant blue dress that every actress wore. This change, although understated, helped to create a dynamic, memorable character.
The innovative set, designed by Marc Alsina ’13, creatively utilized shadow theater screens that enabled actors to convey mythical actions. The entire play was meant to take place underwater, a challenging task to say the least. To avoid having the show take place in a dunk tank, lighting designer Robbie Steinberg ’13, instead attempted to create the illusion of being underwater by utilizing blue lights. However, I’m not sure this setting would have been decipherable to the average audience member. In general, the lighting contributed to the various atmospheres of each scene, most memorably during Ceyx’s tragic sea voyage.
Unfortunately, the sound proved to be overly-experimental and awkward—soundbites would end without fading, sometimes causing the audience to awkwardly laugh often during what was intended to be a sad scene. The sound distracted from the elegant simplicity of the set, costumes, props and lighting, and it often felt out of place, especially when it was meant to be funny, such as with the playing of Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire.”
The influence of director Jessica Rassp ’13, was visible particularly through music and sound, which included original music compositions and dancing. Although I’m a huge fan of musical theater in general, I did not feel that the use of singing was appropriate within this minimalistic play. Just as happy music plays when two characters kiss at the end of a romantic comedy, the singing seemed like a cheap way to elicit an emotional response from the audience. For example after Ceyx dies, three actors began to sing a sad song a cappella. Although it sounded great, I felt that the acting was strong enough on its own to convey the story. It also seemed almost random at points, lacking cohesion with the rest of the performance.
Metamorphoses seamlessly related Greek mythology to our modern world. The set, costumes, lighting and props masterfully contributed to the various atmospheres, while the actors impressed with their wide range of characters. Although I would have changed a few things, the play was performed fantastically.