Transformation. People will say that they're afraid of change or act as if they are, but transformation is at the heart of almost every story in existence. It's certainly at the heart of Refraction Arts' latest production. "I first read the myth of Philomel in Ovid's Metamorphoses," says Sonnet Blanton, co-director with Julia M. Smith of The Philomel Project: we are all transformed to birds. "I think it struck me so because I was going to a women's college, was a raging feminist, and the idea of a woman being attacked and having her voice taken away and finding a way to tell her story in spite of that just seemed to me such a tremendous act of courage."
The story, for those who don't know, starts when Tereus, a wealthy and famous Greek warrior, marries Procne. Though ill omens attend their wedding, they have a son. After five years, Procne wishes to see her sister, Philomel, so Tereus sails to Athens to fetch her from her father's side. But when he sees her, he is immediately overcome with lust, and as soon as he returns home, he takes her to a lodge in the woods, rapes her, and cuts out her tongue. And that's only the beginning.
"It's your standard Greek myth: family tragedy, incest, high dramatics," says Smith. "When Sonnet first told me about it, she really wanted to do it with a group of people and she really wanted to do a movement piece, and I had a lot of movement background from my training at the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU."
So they invited a diverse group of writers to write the play in pieces, then shaped its final form in a collaborative effort among a group of actors. "For me, the process has always been so much about what other people bring to it," says Blanton. "I don't ever want to force something onto a scene or onto a character before the actor comes in and I see what the individual brings particularly for this piece, because there was no script to begin with. It has been such a joy to get six incredibly talented actors in a room and see how far they can stretch."
"What's always gotten me is the end of the story," says Smith, "that they all transform into birds. The story is really all about transformation. Tereus is a loving husband, then he transforms into a lustful monster. Philomel is an innocent young woman and then becomes a voiceless victim. Procne is a faithful wife but transforms into the head of a gang of women who rescue Philomel and is able to kill her own child and cook him and feed him to her husband. And then, suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, they all turn into birds. They're all allowed a final transformation. It's still my favorite thing about the story, the thing that I find exquisite and wondrously beautiful. It's almost as if, in the end, they're all forgiven. Could there be anything more finally transformative than that?"
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