(Host) The Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis has been adapted for the stage in major new productions this year in New York, London… and in White River Junction Vermont.
VPR’s Betty Smith takes us Backstage for a look at an adventurous production by Northern Stage.
(Smith) Brooke Wetzel is artistic director at Northern Stage, the resident theater company at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. She’s directing “Ovid: Tales of Myth and Magic,” based on Ovid’s collection of more than 200 myths.
All of the myths involve some kind of transformation… or metamorphosis:
(Wetzel) “Whether that’s an emotional transformation or…there’s an awful lot of transformation of human beings into trees or shrubs or animals. A woman changes into a laurel bush. Well, what’s unique about a laurel bush is that its leaves stay evergreen and it comes from Apollo’s love of her that is undying and that’s the story behind why the bush stays always green. So we’ve worked a lot with our costume designer, with the lighting designers, to create a transformation that is not all of a sudden a woman holding sticks with leaves on the end of it, that it’s coming from the essence of the character interaction.”
(Smith) When Wetzel held auditions, roughly 30 myths were still under consideration, so she couldn’t hire actors to fill specific roles. Instead, she created an ensemble of four men and five women.
Their first assignment was to narrow the list down in collaboration with all the designers and the composer. It was not your typical rehearsal process. Wetzel says the rehearsal hall was more like a laboratory.
(Wetzel) “There were large worksheets of huge brown paper about three feet wide by about eight feet long and at the top was the title of each of the myths and then what the basic change was. For example, ‘woman becomes tree’ or ‘man and woman become one being.'”
(Smith) Ten myths were finally selected. Parts were cast and the transformation of literature into theater began in earnest.
The story of Arachne comes last. It’s about the value of creating and taking pride in your craft. And it’s an appropriate choice to close a performance that weaves so many stories and voices together.
Arachne is a young woman who rashly challenges the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. Athena is, among other things, the goddess of weaving and the story she weaves is brilliant, but mere mortal Arachne matches her thread for thread. Now, everybody but Arachne knows that it’s unwise to anger a goddess. Athena’s rage at the girl’s success provides the most dramatic visual of the production. Leah Smith, who plays Arachne, explains the metamorphosis:
(Leah Smith) “I’ve been watching spiders on the Discovery Channel, and I’ve been looking at pictures of them, and trying to think about drawing out and dangly and spindly and spidery. And the music that we have also helps. It’s sort of creepy and crawly and I just try and physicalize that and it’s a magical process involving the God Athena and lots of legs growing out of me with lots of… well, it’s magic. (laughs) It’s magic.”
(Sound of rehearsal) “Hair, ears and nose fell off. The head shrunk, the body shriveled, all else was belly, and the girl…a spider.”
(Smith) And for a moment we too are transformed by an ancient story. For VPR Backstage, I’m Betty Smith.
(Host) The Northern Stage production of “Ovid: Tales of Myth and Magic” runs through February 24 at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction Vermont.