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08/03/2011 07:00:00

Metamorphose Now!

On Friday, August 5, at 7:30 p.m., and weekend nights thereafter through Saturday the 13th, the courtyard of the Lloyd House undergraduate residence at Caltech will transform into a theater with a pool of water for center stage. That pool will become by turns primal chaos, a washing basin, a swimming pool, the sea, and the Underworld's River Styx. 

Indeed, the entire evening will metamorphose into a celebration of impermanence, evolution, and change as Caltech's theatrical troupe EXPLiCIT (which stands for EXtracurricular PLayers at CIT, the i being imaginary) presents Metamorphoses, a play by Mary Zimmerman based on the epic mythological/historical narrative by the Roman poet Ovid.

The play comprises nine scenes, each one distinct in style and each telling a different story, with all united by the theme of change: chaos into order, life into death, human into bird, or tree, or gold, or into spirit and back (or not), a constant morphing of the emotions and psyche as well as the physical.

The transformations—most of which take place either in or around water—are achieved mainly through costume and movement, says the show's choreographer, Crystal Dilworth. A grad student in the lab of Bren Professor of Biology Henry Lester, she is an alumna of both UC San Diego (biochemistry) and New York City's Ailey School (dance).

Ovid's Metamorphoses is one of our primary sources for the Greek myths. Both it and Zimmerman's play begin with chaos and the emergence of the world from it, but the play then follows its own course as a woman, a scientist, and Zeus narrate the event. The play then shifts to laundresses at work, who first introduce the story of King Midas and his touch of gold, and, later, the tale of Alcyone and her husband and their mysterious transfiguration. Cannibalism, incest, Pandora's box, and the descent of Orpheus into the Underworld are played out with a distinctly modern sensibility: Phaeton, for instance, recounts to his therapist the consequences of misusing the Sun Chariot. The blessings accrued when love is given and the evil that results when love is ignored are important themes for both Ovid and Zimmerman.

Aside from the appeal of the Greek stories themselves—"drama on a mythic scale," according to director Miranda Stewart—the attraction of the play is that its multiple roles make it modular, so to speak. "It lets anyone be involved at their comfort level," says Stewart, a former Caltech biology major who transferred to Occidental College her junior year and received her degree in theater in May.

Some of the characters appear once, others—particularly the gods—appear several times each. A cast member might appear in one scene or multiple scenes. "There's less pressure on an actor to sustain a character—you don't have to carry it forward for an hour or more," says Stewart. "The show doesn't seem that hard for actors to get into."

That's an important consideration for EXPLiCIT, which always tries for the widest participation possible among undergrads and from the Caltech community at large. Besides the usual cross section—students, both undergrad and grad, as well as postdocs, staff, JPL, and participants drawn from the broader community, with levels of experience ranging from many years to first time ever—this production's cast and crew include SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) students from other colleges and universities entirely.

This was no accident, since Crystal Dilworth took care to set up a table outside Student Services and hand out information about EXPLiCIT to SURF students as they arrived from the airport for SURF orientation.

While most of the SURF participants found out about the production that way, it came to the attention of Dan Healy via the SURF newsletter. A senior from UC Santa Cruz majoring in computer science, he had done "cold readings" of scripts in connection with a playwriting class and so decided to take a chance on auditioning for Metamorphoses. He landed several roles, as did Dustin Harris, who is majoring in human biology at UC San Diego, and Heidi Peterson, a senior from the Maine Maritime Academy, where she is majoring in marine systems engineering.

"It's a lot of fun," says Peterson. "I didn't know anyone here, so it's been really nice getting together with people to do something like this." Healy recommends it as well: "It's cool working with people who have actual theatrical experience."

Adds Harris, who is minoring in theater and psychology, "This experience has definitely not been what I expected. These people are fantastic actors and still are some of the brightest minds of today in the fields of science. It just blows me away how they can have all this acting skill while climbing the ladder of success in science."

Charlie Starr, a sophomore physics major from Columbia University, found himself roped into designing the set. "He offered to help," Dilworth says with a smile, "and had no idea what he was getting into."

Starr admits he'd had little experience and "hoped to have someone tell me what to do," but now finds himself with a great deal of valuable experience to take back with him to New York. He had able backup from Caltech undergrads like Jamie Tayar and Jetson Leder-Luis, who'd had experience constructing pools for parties at Blacker and Ricketts student houses.

"This has all been a real grassroots effort," Dilworth concludes.

The transfigurations of Metamorphoses will take place at 7:30 p.m. on August 5, 6, 7, 12, and 13. Tickets are $5 for students and $10 general, and are available online or at the door. The courtyard of Lloyd House is located directly across from the cannon on Caltech's Olive Walk, approximately a block south of the parking structure on Holliston Avenue. Caltech parking is open to the public after 5 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends. Maps of the campus can be found here.

Written by Michael Farquhar