A Noise Within’s (ANW) 30th anniversary season comes to a close with a rare revival of ‘Metamorphoses,’ the multiple award-winning theatrical event from MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant recipient Mary Zimmerman. On stage from May 14 through June 5, with previews beginning on May 8, this elaborate and much anticipated production is helmed by Producing Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott.
Comedy, romance, and poetry abound as ancient tales about Midas, Orpheus, and Aphrodite come to life for a modern audience. Adapted from David R. Slavitt’s free-verse translation of ‘The Metamorphoses of Ovid,’ the play takes place in and around a swimming pool that stands in for locations that include a wash basin, the River Styx, and the sea. The characters – gods and mortals alike – endure love, loss, and transformation while immersed in a pool of water.
A cast of nine resident artists (RAs) takes on over 85 roles in six Greek myths: DeJuan Christopher (Seven Guitars); Geoff Elliott (ANW producing artistic director); Rafael Goldstein (‘All’s Well That Ends Well,’ ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ more); Nicole Javier (‘All’s Well That Ends Well’); Kasey Mahaffy (‘All’s Well That Ends Well,’ ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ more); Sydney A. Mason (‘A Christmas Carol,’ ‘Seven Guitars’); Trisha Miller (‘All’s Well That Ends Well,’ ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ ‘Argonautika,’ more); Cassandra Marie Murphy (‘Argonautika,’ ‘Henry V,’ ‘Man of La Mancha‘); and Erika Soto (‘All’s Well That Ends Well,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Frankenstein,’ more).’
Production stage manager Amy Rowell leads the creative team of scenic designer François-Pierre Couture; lighting designer Ken Booth; composer and sound designer Robert Oriol; costume designer Garry Lennon; properties designer Shen Heckel; fight choreographer Kenneth R. Merckx, Jr.; and dramaturg Miranda Johnson-Haddad.
Interviewed by phone, Rodriguez-Elliott tells us what ‘Metamorphoses’ is about. “Mary Zimmerman took nine vignettes that share a common theme of transformation. They deal with love, loss, selflessness, generosity, greed – and they’re all incredibly human. She has a wonderful ability to bridge the ancient and the modern so the stories feel very much of the here and now.”
“In this moment that we’re living – when the world is undergoing extraordinary change – that could be painful or it could be joyous,” explains Rodriguez-Elliott. “And ‘Metamorphoses’ is the perfect play for us to end our season with its theme of exploring the joys and perils of change.”
“Mary first wrote it when she was teaching at Northwestern,” Rodriguez Elliott enlightens. “It had a different title the first time it was presented. And while she envisioned a body of water in it, there was no water for that particular show.”
Rodriguez Elliott, who previously directed ‘Argonautika’ at ANW, discloses that she has never seen a production of ‘Metamorphoses’ – which gives her the opportunity to make it her own. “Mary has a very specific style in her plays and the way that she writes really speaks to me. She has an ensemble that she works with, not unlike what we have, so these are people that really speak her language. However, even though a lot of her work has her DNA she leaves it quite open for the director – you could find your own voice within it. This is the second Mary Zimmerman play that I’m directing, and I found that to be the case.
“The marvelous thing about her plays is that she puts on stage what is seemingly impossible to stage. For instance, she would have a direction that says ‘And now there is a battle in the water.’ You, as the director, will visualize how this battle is articulated in a theatrical way. You have clues in the text as to where things are taking place, but you have to create it and imagine it yourself in a way that feels personal to you as an artist.”
“I love plays that are about voyages and journeys and the whole element of the water in this play is so thrilling,” adds Rodriguez-Elliott. “On the first day of rehearsals in the theatre and the play started coming to life with actors being in the water, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep that night when I got home!”
ANW is renowned for presenting plays in repertory, which they deviated from. Rodriguez-Elliott says, “Because we had to have a pool for this production, this spring season our plays were all straight run. The set will sit there for the five weeks that the show runs in. It may not be the most complicated set that we’ve ever done, but it’s challenging in the sense that you’re dealing with concerns like: is the water warm enough for the artists – you have change stations off stage that actors can warm up after they’ve been in the water; there’s a cleaning procedure that comes with temperature… all those things need to be addressed.
“Also, we all know as homeowners that water can have all kinds of consequences if they go in the wrong place. A lot of it is about containing and insulating the pool in the appropriate way. There are also concerns about what surface to have in the pool so no one slips – do the actors wear shoes or not. As to costumes, there’s a choice between synthetic versus cotton, because of what cotton does in terms of fibers being in the pool. All these have to be considered and they impact just about every designer on the show.”
ANW’s production of ‘Argonautika’ before the pandemic enjoyed critical acclaim. It’s only fair to assume that every one of their resident artists wanted to be a part of ‘Metamorphoses.’ Asked how she selected the actors among their very talented RAs, Rodriguez-Elliott answers, “It’s like with any casting – you have to cast appropriately for the needs of the role and show. The actors were definitely very excited especially because we announced it two years ago but we had to postpone it because of the pandemic.
“Like ‘Argonautika,’ it’s a very demanding show. It’s very physical and it takes a lot of stamina to get through it. But the actors love it. And it’s wonderful that a lot of us have worked together for so long that they know how I work as a director. It’s a lot easier to get where you want to get to when people are able to jump and dig in fearlessly and with a whole lot of trust. I trust them and they trust me, so we’re able to do so much.”
Rodriguez-Elliott says further, “The actors who were already cast when we first announced it had the time to think about it, had lived with the play, and had the desire to do the play for a very long time. We didn’t bring back all the shows that we postponed, but this was something we really wanted to do. However, as you might imagine, we did it late in the season because we thought if we were still implementing safety measures we had to consider all the protocols around water and all the attendant challenges.”
“This is a play that celebrates theatricality and the magic of theatre,” Rodriguez-Elliott declares as the audience takeaway. “It speaks to us about the things you can only do on stage and nowhere else. It’s a production unlike any other we have ever seen – the element of water on stage is almost another character in the play. I think there are so many moments that are thrilling just in terms of how the water behaves and how the actors interact with it. Additionally, we have an original music score for it and an exquisite design team. I think the set is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen on our stage. Ken Booth who’s our lighting designer is doing extraordinary work.”
“In this moment that we’re living in, this play commemorates the power of love, change, and the opportunity to change. And I think that’s therapeutic right now,” Rodriguez-Elliott emphasizes.
Asked what it meant to have audiences back in the theatre for ANW’s 30th anniversary, Rodriguez-Elliott replies, “Everything that we have ever done in the theatre is about community. And what we realized during the pandemic is how essential that community is to us and to the work, and how much we missed it. So having the opportunity not only to return, but to be returning during the 30th anniversary season and rejoicing as a community the accomplishments of the organization, is very moving.”
Coinciding with ANW’s 30th anniversary is their 10th year in Pasadena. Rodriguez-Elliott marvels as she relates what that’s like, “Can you believe it?! Again, you have to go back to community; you really have a sense that the community in Pasadena is tangible. I felt it from the first moment that we opened the theater. The value that they place on the arts as a quality of life issue isn’t something you see in every city. Pasadena is home – we’re not going anywhere.”
As to ANW’s plans for the next decade, Rodriguez-Elliott states, “We’ll continue to experience tremendous growth and there are a number of directions that growth can take. For us it’s embracing that journey – whether that means enlarging the physical plans or expanding programming, which includes our work in diversity, inclusion, and accessibility that’s very necessary.
“We’re bringing voices that have not been part of A Noise Within’s stages until now. We have the Noise Now Program where we invite the community to participate in events. We’ve developed wonderful relationships with other artists and organizations and that will continue to expand the definition of a classic for us. We have this beautiful campus and we’re able to use it in its totality – whether it’s outside, the lobby, the rehearsal space upstairs – in bringing other disciplines. We’ve had dance, music, art exhibitions that the place becomes a welcome environment for all.”
Rodriguez-Elliott describes ‘Metamorphoses’ as celebrating the magic of theatre. It could very well pronounce A Noise Within’s significant contribution to our community in the last ten years. It is organizations like them that endow Pasadena with the arts and the culture that are the city’s defining attractions.