Changing, changing: METAMORPHOSES at PlayMakers, in repertory with THE TEMPEST

Stories of metamorphosis abound in every culture; our changing bodies and changing desires have caused them to arise in the human mind since the beginning. Anyone raised in Western literary culture will have been exposed since childhood to the stories of strange and wondrous changes collected by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-18 AD) from all the Greek and Roman sources available to him and collated into 15 books of poetically flowing story, Metamorphoses. The stories explain things, like the existence of spiders; or lay out the consequences of behaviors like greed, incest, hubris or self-absorption; they offer consolations against the griefs of life. Ovid has been a source for writers as diverse as Shakespeare and the forgotten scribes of children’s early readers.

Arachne could weave even more beautifully than Athena, shown here disguised as a crone, preparing to turn Arachne into the first spider for that insolence. From the 1928 children's compendium, Book Trails. The story appears in Book VI of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Arachne could weave even more beautifully than Athena, shown here disguised as a crone, preparing to turn Arachne into the first spider for that insolence. From the 1928 children’s compendium, Book Trails. The story appears in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

More recently, the playwright, director and MacArthur Fellowship winner Mary Zimmerman raided Ovid’s trove for her 1998 play, Metamorphoses. She chose just a few of his stories to enliven onstage, and augmented them with related material from other sources (poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke; the story of Eros and Psyche, which does not come down via Ovid), creating a theatrical experience that mimics the carefully crafted flow of Ovid’s work, in which each story has some connection to those on either side of it.

In Zimmerman’s work, water, that great signifier of formal fluidity and agent of change, is a central element, and water there is—a great pool taking up much of the stage–at UNC’s Paul Green Theatre, where PlayMakers Repertory Company has mounted Metamorphoses. Co-directed by PlayMakers’ Joseph Haj and visiting master artist Dominique Serrand, Metamorphoses is playing in rotating rep with The Tempest through Dec. 8.

The ensemble in PRC's METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

The ensemble in PRC’s METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

PRC has production capabilities far outstripping all other theaters in the area, capabilities created and supported by the company’s role in the teaching programs of the Department of Dramatic Art. Every production at PlayMakers is a learning experience for both acting and theatre-tech students, and they supply a huge labor force while learning. For a show involving water on stage, with actors continually getting in and out of it, backstage work increases exponentially; for two alternating shows in which actors and their clothes must be dried before their next entrance, a backstage cast of thousands and many flow charts (pardon the expression) are required.

Julia Gibson as the psychologist, Gregory DeCandia as Apollo, and Nathaniel P. Claridad as Phaeton. Ari Picker on guitar. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Ari Picker, guitar; Julia Gibson,  Gregory DeCandia, and Nathaniel P. Claridad, during Phaeton’s tale.  Photo: Michal Daniel/ PRC.

Carey Cox in the rain, with Nilan Johnson and Nathaniel P. Claridad, in METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Carey Cox as Eurydice in the rain, with Nilan Johnson and Nathaniel P. Claridad, in METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

But one does not think about that while the stories unfurl and float away through the dark sea of mythic consciousness. One may think about time, or timelessness, or how much we are the same as the men and women who lived thousands of years ago and generated these mythic tales. One may be pierced or pinched by them to tears, so vivid are the stories and so exact their parallels to personal experiences. Just in case someone might have missed their relevance to contemporary issues, Zimmerman inserted a note-taking, jargon-speaking psychologist (well-played by Julia Gibson) into the story of Phaeton (Nathaniel P. Claridad) crashing and burning after taking his father (Gregory DeCandia) Apollo’s sun chariot for a disastrous spin. The script makes this a funny story, but most of them are not–though several do have happy conclusions. There’s not anything you can do to alleviate the pain of Orpheus, who just can’t not look back. But there is a kind of joy in the metamorphosis into seabirds of the grieving widow and her drowned husband, and celebration when Midas after much travail loses his golden touch and regains his live daughter. The great stories to live by are saved for the end, and by the end on opening night, the cast, most of whom are first and second year MFA students, had lost their initial stiffness and gotten into the rhythm (many of these actors also play in The Tempest which opened the night before, so some transitional moments can be forgiven). Both the story of Philemon and Baucis, an old, poor, couple who give hospitality to strangers, and thereby entertain the gods unaware; and the story of Eros and Psyche divided and reunited, are beautifully played. It’s wonderful to see these ancient myths brought to new life in young bodies, and to be reminded of  how, always changing, we never change.

Brandon Garegnani and Arielle Yoder as Eros and Psyche in the PRC production of METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Brandon Garegnani and Arielle Yoder as Eros and Psyche in the PRC production of METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

As satisfying as Metamorphoses is, the companion production of The Tempest is even more fulfilling. My review was published Nov. 8, 2013, on Classical Voice of North Carolina, with the title “A Lucid Storm: The Tempest at PlayMakers.”

Julie Fishell as Prospero and Maren Searle as Ariel in PRC's new production of THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Julie Fishell as Prospero and Maren Searle as Ariel in THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one of his most delightful plays, and not only for its many pleasant aspects. A story’s told from start to finish, and in it wrongs are righted, men better themselves, and a love match is made. Spirits and monsters can be seen and heard. There are ridiculous pratfalls and tender revelations. There’s music, and language that could be called the same. But no matter what interpretation du jour is laid upon the script, the play’s meditation on the magical power of words and stories to create and shape life is what makes it so engaging each time one sees it, and so worthy of seeing again and again.

The young lovers Miranda and Ferdiand, played by Caroline Strange and Brandon Garegnani. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

The young lovers Miranda and Ferdiand, played by Caroline Strange and Brandon Garegnani. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

PlayMakers Repertory Company has just opened a refined and visually-lovely new….READ THE REST ON CVNC HERE.

Wonderfully comic Julia Wilson as Stephano, with Jeffrey Blair Cornell's Caliban and John Allore's Trinculo under the blanket, in PRC's THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Wonderfully comic Julia Wilson as Stephano, with Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s Caliban and John Allore’s Trinculo under the blanket, in PRC’s THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

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Power Play: RICHIE Goes a-Roving as Little Green Pig remixes Richard II

Queen Richie, Euro-trash party girl.

You never know what you will get, with the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. But you do know it will not be average, mediocre, or even normal. There is no middle ground with these folks, who go flat out for broke with every production. It’ll be heaven, or it will be really bad. If you know the company’s work, you tend not to care when something comes out stinky—it is just the price of the work that works.

Dana Marks as Richie, and Jane Holding as her aunt, Mary-Gaunt Bolingbroke, as twilight falls on LGP’s roving RICHIE.

It is working this time.

LGP’s current production shakes loose from nearly all conventions. It’s Shakespeare—modified, adulterated, transgendered and ripped out of the frame—but still, recognizably Shakespeare. LGP’s artistic director Jay O’Berski, along with fellow travelers such as Tom Marriott and Jeffrey Detwiler, both of whom are involved here, have long demonstrated great sensitivity to the plays of Shakespeare, and huge skills at upending expectations of them while guarding their core of meaning and language. With RICHIE they’ve gone where no man has gone before.

Richard II is a dark play, difficult and mean. With an all-female cast and a contemporary conceit, Richie is just as dark, hard and mean.

Wait, an all-female cast? Oh yes, and that changes a lot of things. When all those fathers and sons and uncles and nephews and boy cousins become mothers and daughters and aunts and nieces and girls cousins, you have got some different chemistry to contend with. The end result of the power plays remains the same, but you get there by a different route. Not content with merely rewriting Shakespeare and giving all the power to the women, and certainly not content with merely “breaking the fourth wall” of the theater, LGP has ditched the theater all together, and gone a-roving, marshalled by director Jay O’Berski in one of his more brilliant endeavors.

Dana Marks leads the cast as Richie, high-living, bling-dripping, Euro-trash queen of her entourage. Her huge performance tells us all we need to know about charismatic personal power. Like her entourage (the present day substitute for the royal Court), we unquestioningly follow her from pub to club: from the fashionable haunts and seedy purlieux of Riggsbee Avenue, past the gloomy facade of shuttered, hulking Liberty warehouse, up and down the slick dales of DurhamCentral Park—to Richard’s bitter end, known and expected, but nonetheless shocking when it comes to Richie. The final scene imprints your mind, an unforgettable projection in the dark, outside the guardhouse.

Marks’ performance is magnificent. Seeing her stride through street and crowd in her black lace doublet (very Prada—see September Vogue—but probably by costumer Kala Wolfe, or one of the four other contributing local fashion designers), I realized I’d never seen Marks on a big stage. She could command the DPAC! and her vocal skills are such that she could be heard in the balcony. As it was, she made herself heard over pub roar, traffic growl, and Gram Parsons covers at Motorco, with her most delicate soliloquy occurring outside Geer Street Garden, with people coming and going through her scene.

Jane Holding as Mary-Gaunt Bolingbroke

Not all the cast has equally strong vocal capabilities, but certainly the two that need it most, do. The marvelous Jane Holding plays Mary-Gaunt Bolingbroke to a T. I wanted to put her on re-wind, just to listen to her speeches again. She’s Richie’s aged aunt, and in their first scene together we begin to sense just how the feminization of the play torques it. Mary-Gaunt is also the mother of Hayley (not Henry), who will by wiles wrest the royal star from her cousin. Tamara Kissane

Tamara Kissane as the cold, charming usurper, Haley Bolingbroke.

(so good to see her in action with such a dynamic role) sizzles like dry ice, and you can be sure butter would not melt in her mouth. You can actually hear her throughout, but you wouldn’t have to: Her physical presence and styled behaviors, so cool and clean, mark her as the new star each time we see her in Richie’s fevered presence.

I have wasted time, and now time doth waste me.

Mention cannot be made of every cast member, even though they all have their special moments. Notable, however, are Kana Hatakeyama and Alyssa Crash Wong as “Momo” Northumberland and her daughter, “Hotstuff.” You know Northumberland—the Duke, with his sons dukes after him for generations, who keeps a finger to the winds of change, always ensuring a fair breeze blows on him. He’s the very model of a modern party-switcher, and in any alliance he makes between power and loyalty, he will always retain power and ditch the loyalty. Momo and Hotstuff perform that baronial function well. One wishes only that we could go on for the next few plays and see Hotstuff  (Henry Hotspur Percival) mature into her coming set-to with Hayley’s (Henry) line.

Thinking back on the numerous fascinating productions of Shakespeare by The Somnambulist Project/Shakespeare & Originals/Little Green Pig, I’m awed to realize once again that we live in a place (…this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this DURHAM…) where Shakespeare lives on, thanks in great part to the aforenamed purveyors of the word. I’m personally addicted to the plays of Shakespeare, and will go at any opportunity. Whether or not you are so addicted, do not miss this up-to-the-minute remake of one of the great, tough, ones. RICHIE points its flashlights in the dark, like swords, stabbing at the corruption, cruelty, and conniving that remain always in fashion, whomever may be leading the entourage.

Let us talk of graves. In the skateboard pit in Durham Central Park.

RICHIE continues on the streets of Durham Thursdays-Sundays at 7:30, through Sept. 22. For information, http://www.littlegreenpig.com. Email tickets@littlegreenpig, or call 919-452-2304. Please be assured that even in the gloaming, the show looks better than my cell phone pictures!

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