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BACKSTAGE / 'THE METAMORPHOSES' : Word of Myth : The Lit Moon company will stage an original adaptation of Ovid's enduring tales, integrating narrative with elements of dance.

March 25, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hunters turned into stags. Nymphs changed into laurel trees. Gods driving sun-chariots through the skies.

Just business as usual in the fantastic world of the ancient Greek and Roman myth, as related by the poet Ovid in his "Metamorphoses" a long time ago.

How humdrum the modern world seems in comparison. Few gardens sport flowering nymphs nowadays. Hunters have more to fear from expired licenses than vengeful goddesses. And we've settled for Mazda Miatas in place of sun chariots.

Perhaps that's part of the enduring fascination with Ovid's world, where the boundaries between gods and man and plants and animals were much more fluid.

"Ovid's is a world of flux, rendered in strikingly imaginative and deeply emotional terms," said director John Blondell. It was Blondell's Lit Moon Theatre Company that secured a beachhead for Central Coast experimental theater last year with an innovative re-examination of the darker currents in Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland."

The company will unveil its next project, an original adaptation of "The Metamorphoses," on April 8 at Santa Barbara's Center Stage Theater.

But Ventura County residents can get a first peek at the show at an open rehearsal this Saturday in the dance studio of the Livery Performing Arts complex.

As in "Alice," "The Metamorphoses" will integrate narrative with elements of dance and movement, and original music performed by composer Michael Mortilla. To differentiate the varied characters, designer Lesley Finlayson is designing 56 highly stylized masks for the six performers.

Viewers may have trouble recognizing some of the classical origins in what he hopes will be an engaging and challenging contemporary work, but Blondell insists they're there. Following the essence of Ovid, he said, the work's dramatic emphasis is on the pivotal moments of experience that "reveal life's inexplicable and unexpected character."

The company's unconventional approach to creating the adaptation began as a collective process, not with a set script. Each member selected one from the more than 100 myths in Ovid's poem, in Blondell's hope that, "The range of people's individual choices would reflect the panoramic variety of the original."

That process yielded the seven myths that form Lit Moon's adaptation. Some stories are familiar from countless adaptations and literary references, such as Orpheus' quest to reclaim Eurydice from the land of the dead; Apollo's love-struck pursuit of Daphne; Phaethon's impudent attempt to pilot his father Phoebus' sun chariot; or Actaeon's punishment--he's turned into a stag and devoured by his own hunting dogs--for viewing the bathing Artemis.

Others are more obscure--the lovers Ceyx and Alcyone parted by death and transformed into birds; the union of Hermaphroditus and the nymph Samacis into one body; the devoted old couple Baucis and Philemon, whose hospitality to disguised gods netted them the answer to their wish that neither would live to see the other die (they became trees with intertwined roots).

Following an initial discussion about the psychological implications and theatrical possibilities of each myth, Blondell said, "We'd then identify the critical moments of the story, and label them with some sort of image or metaphor."

The staging was then constructed out of the cast's physical improvisation around these central images. "After two or three rehearsals," Blondell said, "I'd go back to the text and mine it for the most significant narrative and dialogue that would fuse with what we'd done physically."

Blondell said he knows of no precedents for this approach, claiming, "It was just something that seemed to work with this type of material. We're not trying to tell the story in a literal fashion, but to evoke the sense of it through movement and music and light and all the elements of theater. It's through exploring all these techniques that we hope to engage the audience's imagination in a different way than a realistic or a naturalistic play would."

It may sound like a recipe for multimedia chaos, but what differentiates Lit Moon's approach, Blondell said, is the emphasis on storytelling. "We really pay attention to Ovid's original text, even though we're trying to recreate it in a different medium," he said.

"Storytelling is the root of the theatrical process. And our goal as a company is to explore what is distinctive about the theater, rather than how it might be similar to other art forms, like film and television, dance and movement, and even literature. We might apply techniques from all of them, but the emphasis is still on the theatrical experience."

WHERE AND WHEN

* 'The Metamorphoses" will preview on Saturday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m. at the Livery Performance Studio, 34 N. Palm St. in Ventura, $5 donation. Call 643-5701 for information. The play runs April 8-25 at the Paseo Nuevo Center Stage Theater in Santa Barbara, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on April 18 and 25. Tickets are $10. Call (805) 963-0408 for reservations or further information.

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