Constellation Theatre’s Aquatic Metamorphoses Runs Deep
The black-box theater at Source is not an obvious place to build a pool. First of all, it's small—a perfect space for intimate audiences and shows that focus on content but eschew spectacle. In that sense, the venue doesn't quite lends itself to Constellation Theatre Company's staging of Metamorphoses. Based primarily on Ovid's poem, Mary Zimmerman's play is a series of vignettes featuring roughly 40 mythological and modern characters. Here, these myths play out in a pool of water deep enough for an actor to be fully submerged. Such requirements would pose numerous challenges for any company. Artistic Director Allison Arkell Stockman's interpretation of Metamorphoses, which begins previews this evening, is surely the most ambitious production to date for this five-year-old company.
Not least among Constellation's challenges was funding the pool's construction. The company launched the "Fill the Pool" campaign with the goal of raising $50,000, or $10 per gallon of water. Stockman says donations exceeded that goal by "several thousand."
Three inches at the shallow end and three feet at the deep, scenic designer AJ Guban's pool boasts an underwater entrance. Technical Director Daniel Flint constructed Guban's design in five segments, using two layers of interlocking plywood. After the company loaded the segments into Source individually, the whole thing was put together and sealed with epoxy. As of yesterday afternoon, Flint reported no unmanageable leaks. Since chlorine is so stinky, an ionizer and a sand filter will keep the water hygenic. Recent Helen Hayes Award winner Kendra Rai is outfitting the cast in colorful costumes constructed from bathing suit fabric. Any mishap involving an overhead light might cause electrocution, so the water and playing space will be lit using side booms. Stockman says a backdrop of "curvy corrugated plastic"—in lieu of lighting—will suggest the sky.
As much as Constellation's ability to solve these issues will determine how audiences receive Metamorphoses, so too does the timing of the production. Comparisons to Zimmerman's Tony Award-winning staging are inevitable, especially since Arena Stage announced plans to mount the play—with Zimmerman directing—in February 2013. As interesting as it will be for D.C. audiences to see two different productions so close together, the announcement was unwelcome news to Stockman. Policies regarding the granting of production rights for a given play vary according to the wishes of rights holders. Generally, royalty fees are determined based on the seating capacity of a company's venue. Publishers retain the prerogative to withdraw permission at any time, and often place restrictions on a play designed to avoid competition over audiences in the same geographic area within close time frames. It's not unheard of for a small theater company to be bought out of a licensing contract, if the opportunity arises to grant permission to a larger company. "The morning that I read [Arena's announcement] in the paper I was terrified that that would happen," Stockman says. "And at that point it had been cast, designed, we had done the huge fundraising thing for it. It would have been so bad. Fortunately, that hasn't happened."
Having applied for the rights twice in the past and been turned down, Stockman feels the timing has also worked in the company's favor. "I'm kind of glad we didn't get them when we first asked, because the pool had turned out to be such a challenge that—even for where we are right now—it would have been so much more difficult when the organization was even younger. I feel like it's at the very cusp of what is possible for us right now."
While comparisons may be inevitable, so too are the nuances that an individual creative team brings to the interpretation of a script. Asked what themes interest her, Stockman points to the character Phaeton, how his story is "a critical warning against hubris." And a host of Ovid's tales, she says, are lessons about "greed" which she describes as "very timely."
There's something more personal in Constellation's take on Metamorphoses: In part, the show is an expression of Stockman's processing of the life and death of her colleague and friend Gaurav Gopalan. For Stockman, Orpheus and Eurydice represent two points of view of death: Orpheus the "repetitive agony" of "knowing that he's lost Eurydice to the underworld because of his own actions," and Eurydice that death is "fulfilling and freeing and makes her larger than she'd ever been and makes her one with the universe." Before his death in September 2011, theater artist and engineer Gopalan worked with Constellation on The Ramayana, consulting on Hindu culture and mythology. "What I'm taking from that," says Stockman, "is this idea that he is still with us in some form. That really all of the universe is one. And I think that's an idea that's in the show.
"He was so beautiful and brilliant," she adds. " So we're dedicating the show to him."
Constellation Theatre Company's Metamorphoses runs through June 3 at Source. Performance times and tickets here.