A splashing success

Myth and modernity combine in on-stage pool

Alex Yuschik Jan 19, 2009

When asked about what made her show special, Lara Hillier, a senior in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, had to laugh. Hillier, a seasoned actor and multiple-time winner of the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare Monologue and Scene Competition, has never done a show quite like this before.

“It’s an entirely different theatrical experience because of the swimming pool on stage,” she said, referring to the 4500-gallon goliath that occupies center stage, with a boardwalk and staircases surrounding it.

Hillier first got into acting as a child, when she began singing with a choir. When her group was working on a song that called for some acting, she stepped up to the role and fell in love. “I caught the bug early on,” she recalled, giggling. “I was a little ham as a kid.”

Since then, Hillier soared through the ranks, enrolling in Shakespeare competitions at the Public since age 11, falling in love with the Bard, and even playing Miranda in the Public’s production of The Tempest during her senior year of high school. Though she confessed herself “spoiled to be exposed to classical text at an early age,” since coming to college, she found herself enjoying more contemporary pieces as well. Now, participating in what must be one of the most intriguing mixes of classical and contemporary theater in Pittsburgh, Hillier is ideally suited for her roles.

Metamorphoses, the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s current production, draws on classical myths and tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which were themselves a Latin collection of familiar Greek myths, all having to do with the subject of miraculous transformation. Many of the myths are no doubt familiar: “Orpheus and Eurydice,” “Baucis and Philemon,” and “Cupid and Psyche” are just a few of the tales that lie in store for the audience.

The play itself was a contemporary take on classic myths, interwoven with modern situations and often containing stories within stories. Phaeton saw a psychiatrist for counseling after his ill-fated attempt at guiding his father’s chariot across the sky, and businessman Midas tried to make amends for what his “gift” had done. Many more such twists and turns kept viewers unfamiliar with the myths enthralled while providing a treat for curious classicists.

Admittedly, working with a pool on stage and in use during every scene did have some drawbacks. After the first scene, Hillier was completely drenched and had to change into dry clothing in under a minute before she came on stage again.

“It’s a challenge,” she noted, but added that the pool has brought with it more fun moments than hassle.

“When you’re rehearsing in your bikinis, you become really close,” she laughed, explaining that though the group is half-local and half-international, everyone has become great friends. Hillier, the youngest of the cast, loves it. “It’s a lot of fun watching them work.”

Hillier, who plays Alcyone, as well as several other roles ranging from goddess to wood nymph, was mesmerizing to watch on stage. Her posture, moods, and countenance all altered to reflect the kind of person (or divinity) she portrayed, and, as Alcyone, she delivered her lines with such raw emotion that the audience gasped, captivated by her all-encompassing character and her desperate plea. “She’s in love with her husband and has enormous heart,” Hillier said, commenting on her character. “The moral of her story is that good things happen to good people. She has this amazing, fiery spirit.”

And, sure enough, Hillier’s Alcyone set the audience on fire. Her words reached the theater’s rafters, compelling and bewitching her listeners and rousing the crowd to an enthusiastic applause at the end of her performance.

Metamorphoses progressed cleanly from story to story, with some stories made clearer for those unfamiliar with them, and some subtly interwoven into the show. There was always something going on during the performance, always some story being told, whether in the foreground or the background, and it kept the audience constantly intrigued, always anxious to see what the cast would do next.

From (literally) jovial moments to the depths of despair, Metamorphoses showcased the extremes of human emotion, reminding the audience that sometimes the greatest transformation is not visible nor always readily apparent to others. The play ended with a unique knitting together of the stories involved and a scene that showed a slower, but more meaningful, transformation of the self.

After the production, the audience milled around the lobby floor while a jazz singer crooned out favorite tunes and the cast fanned through the crowd. Hillier, who will be graduating this spring, is looking forward to traveling to New York and Los Angeles in March and May.

“I just want to keep working,” she said. “I would love to stay here on the East Coast or in New York.” Hillier’s dream role would be to play Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but for now, she’ll see where the world takes her. From memorizing lines to belting them out on stage, she puts her whole self into all aspects of her career.

“You’d probably catch me roaming the streets of Shadyside, taking to myself like a crazy person,” Hillier laughed, describing her technique for getting her lines down. But, all in all, she noted, “It’s an amazing lifestyle.”