After Ovid's troubled sister disappears, he withdraws into the pages of his drawing notebook. Still, his parents expect him to be the perfect studious son.
"We need to be proud of you," the parents explain in "Metamorphosis: Junior Year," a new theatrical adaptation of Palo Alto author Betsy Franco's novel. They say they hope that Ovid, a namesake to the Roman poet, will focus on his studies and go to a "good liberal arts college."
But as their concerned rant reaches a climax, the true nature of their demands come to the fore when they cry in unison, "We don't want you to do anything out of the ordinary that might scare us!"
The play strikes close to home for some of the young Palo Alto performers cast in the world-premiere play, which opened March 3 at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre.
"It isn't all that fictional," said Finn Mayer, a Gunn freshman who plays the lead character. Like Ovid, he says, he draws when stressed and finds solace in creative endeavors. "People are obsessed with the importance of academics. It's too much pressure, and it's dangerous."
While Ovid's negotiation of his inclinations and his parents' expectations run throughout the play, what sets the story apart is the way Ovid characterizes his dreams and interprets the lives of classmates and colleagues around him. Armed with a copy of the Roman poet Ovid's "Metamorphoses" given to him by a teacher, Ovid imagines the difficulties of his peers' growth through the lens of myth.
"The myths are turned into metaphors linking the contemporary form of the myth with technology and getting at the core of it," Betsy Franco explained of the process of adapting her work to the stage.
One scene recalls Ovid's sister, Thena, in her descent into drug addiction and is the only one to show her directly. She is dismissive and angry, "at the center of her own tragedy," Ovid says, and her parents repeatedly send her to rehab. Then, she disappears. Ovid recasts his sister as Callisto, whom the gods punish by turning her into a bear and then banishing her to become a constellation in the sky.
Staging the play, which combines poetry, prose and illustrations of myth drawn by Franco's son Tom, has presented challenges and possibilities, director Rafael Klopotowski says. A practitioner of site-specific experimental theater, he has chosen a stripped-down set. Mobile blank panels create adjustable walls and provide a screen for projections with which characters interact. Projections of the myths Ovid associates with his friends and videos of his classmates reinforce his role as narrator and interpreter.
"The set is so flexible: There are so many tools you can use to play around with. We see the play through Ovid's eyes, through his notebook. ... The panels are like blank pages," Klopotowski says.
Tension between representation and real expression undergirds each drama in the play. Ovid's friend Jack, in an apparently perfect relationship with his girlfriend Venicia, tells Ovid that to find a girlfriend, "You gotta at least act like you got your s--t together." Unbeknownst to him, Venicia is unfaithful. In a triangle reminiscent of the myth of Vulcan, Venus and Mars, Venicia's phone misdials her boyfriend when she is in a compromising position with a classmate, revealing the shallow nature of their relationship.
The revelation is a realistic moment for Venicia to reconsider whether she wants to be dating Jack, according to Caroline Moley, who plays the role and is a veteran of Palo Alto Children's Theatre productions.
"The cheating is wrong. But even though on the outside, nothing is wrong, on the inside she's neither who she thought she was nor who Jack thought she was," Caroline said of her character.
Explicit language and the tackling of difficult subjects -- molestation, self-mutilation, addiction and eating disorders -- make the play better suited to older audiences. Still, Caroline said: "The good thing about this play is it doesn't hide things. It's not just about the myths but about things that teenagers actually go through."
Franco's willingness to tackle uncomfortably relevant subjects for teenagers is what attracted Judge Luckey, artistic director at the theater, to commission a play form of "Metamorphoses: Junior Year" a little over a year ago. The city's Teen Arts Council was presented with a staged reading in October and participated in three major workshops and one discussion, during which they discussed the script with the author.
On seeing characters put to life, Franco says, "It's very emotional to watch the rehearsals because the play resonates with me on an emotional level."
What: "Metamorphosis: Junior Year," a Betsy Franco play about an artistic student with a lot on his mind, presented by Palo Alto Children's Theatre
Where: The Palo Alto Children's Theatre main theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: March 3 through March 12. Upcoming show times are: March 10 at 4:30 p.m.; March 11 at 7 p.m. and March 12 at 2 and 7 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for children.
Info: Go to cityofpaloalto.org/childrenstheatre or call 650-463-4930.