Metamorphoses impresses with elaborate set, costumes

It was my first time in a theater in nearly two years. I was standing inside the Vogelstein, queued up for The Experimental Theater of Vassar College’s production of “Metamorphoses.” The show, a highly anticipated event, was completely booked. Around me, students and professors cheerfully mingled. Excitement brewed with every smooth sound of the checkmarks tallying those lucky enough to have reserved a ticket. 

“Metamorphoses” by Mary Zimmerman is a dramatic adaptation of the epic poem by Ovid depicting the beginning of humanity through a series of myths. Three unnamed laundresses narrate the play, dipping in and out of each isolated scene with calculated and flowery commentary. The result is a production charged with philosophy; in pondering the creation of mankind, the laundresses glean lessons from the greedy King Midas, the all-too-smug Erysichthon and the untrusting Orpheus, deciphering “good” from “bad” through triumph and mistake. The show is at once hilarious and heart-wrenching, tender and scorching. For a senior thesis, it is a tall order impressively executed, leaving me emotional by its end. 

While the performances in “Metamorphoses” were lovely, what made the production truly special was its set. The in-the-round theater encouraged a sense of community amongst the audience; the reactions of my peers melded with the experience of watching the show. Additionally, the arena layout forced the actors to be hyper-aware of their engagement, elevating the show to a three-dimensionality that is otherwise lost in drama. The stage itself was spectacular. At the top of the show, it was plain and blinding white in color, composed of two cutout shapes: a rectangular platform, suspended with ropes, level with a small circle, upon which a woman, dressed in purple, danced. While filing into his seat, one audience member accidentally stepped on the suspended platform, and the entire stage precariously swayed back and forth—yet, the woman in purple never broke concentration, her focus inward and intense. When the lights went down, the platform quickly rose above the stage, forming a ceiling. The underside of the platform was covered in vibrant, green vegetation and golden, twinkling lights, providing an earthly illusion. Collective oohs and ahs from the audience were testament to its beauty. The round cutout was actually a covered pool of water, which served as a central feature of the show: Narcissus’ looking-glass for one scene, the site of a tempest in another. Fine sand covered the rest of the ground. The backdrop to the stage was a tall staircase, a source of levels that further encouraged the aspect of three-dimensionality; the set existed as its own world, and we were fishbowl onlookers. 

How the actors interacted with the set was a large factor of the performance. The show achieved its uniqueness as King Midas’ young daughter played in the sand with her shovel and bucket, as Poseidon and Ceyx wrestled in the pool and as the spiritual embodiment of Hunger crawled menacingly down the stairs. The transitions from one vignette to the next were deliberate and practiced, understood as part of the show as much as the scenes themselves. While the laundresses sweeped the sand away and reset the pool covering, they sang to each other, the eerie lilt of their voices blending hauntingly. 

Explaining the design choices, lighting designer Harmony Lindstrom ’22 said, “Because ‘Meta’ is ten different stories in one, it meant that there were a lot of design elements to play with.” Bella Granlund ’22 agreed with this sentiment: “This show is a lot design-wise for everybody, but specifically for costumes. We have twelve actors, but there’s thirty-six-plus characters, so it’s really figuring out how to balance all of that…[we] moved away from the very limited silhouettes and pulled it together into a more fun, creative world, mixing a lot of Greek, draped looks with a modern piece or two.” 

“Metamorphoses” is truly a multimedia performance, with music as an additional, significant component. At various points, actors played violins, drums, saxophones and guitars. Droning, lullaby-like recordings often served as background music. The absence of sound, too, was important; the tense, romantic scene between Eros and Psyche, for example, was conducted in silence. Only the clean, metallic jangle of Psyche’s bangles interrupted the otherwise quiet totality. Together with the seven lighted candles scattered across the sand, the silence created a kind of untouchable magic. 

An audience favorite was certainly the modern adaptation of the myth of Phaethon, which was met with enthusiastic, roaring laughter. Phaethon, the son of Apollo, took the form of a distracted teenager in therapy. He lay in the pool as if he were Freud’s subject of psychoanalysis, fidgeting with a squeaky rubber duck. He told the observing therapist about a schoolyard incident wherein his classmates accused him of lying about his father; Phaethon thus decided to pay a visit to the god. Phaethon rambled on about fantastical powers as he would classic family drama—the heavy lean into the absent-father trope resulted in a slyly humorous jab at today’s therapy culture. 

This production of Metamorphoses reminded me of how enchanting theater can be. The show was all at once inspiring and memorable without taking itself too seriously. For a show consisting of mythology vignettes, the ending was surprisingly touching: as the final line, the conclusion to Baucis and Philemon’s love story, goes, “Let me die still loving, and so, never die.” 

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