A Tale of Metamorphosis: Villanova Theatre’s “Chrysalis”


Villanova Theatre’s Chrysalis was performed this past week in the Mullen Center.

Brendan King, Staff Writer

Much like watching a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, audience members at the John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts had the chance to witness the metamorphosis of an original play from written story to full production for the very first time on Thursday night. 

Villanova Theatre held its debut performance of Chrysalis for the general public on Thursday, February 16, in the Court Theatre at the Mullen Center. This was the first time Chrysalis was ever performed as a play, as its first incarnation was as a dramatic reading held in the Vasey Theatre in 2019. The show was written by Kathryn Petersen and directed by Edward Sobel. 

Chrysalis takes place in 1699 and the early 1700s in such locations as Amsterdam and Suriname. The plot is loosely based on the true story of Maria Sibylla Merian, a naturalist with an affinity for studying and painting insects, most notably caterpillars and butterflies, and her two daughters Dorothea Graff Merian and Johanna Merian Herolt. Audience members watched as the traditional mother-daughter relationship is challenged and as characters struggle with identity, religion and breaking conformity. These three characters were played by Margo Weishar, Sydney Curran and Regan Venturi, respectively. The eight-member cast also included Taylor Molt, Joshua Peters, Sheldon Shaw, Paul Goraczko and Brendan T. Cochran. 

Curran, a first-year set assistant at Villanova, was previously involved in productions of Curtains and Men on Boats as a crew member. Chrysalis, however, was the first time she acted onstage for Villanova Theatre. Prior to her being cast as Dorothea in the 2023 production, she had little knowledge about the play, but quickly fell in love with its story, characters and themes. 

“I really loved the dynamic between all three of the Merian women, and it speaks really true to the complications of family and following your passion,” Curran said. 

Given that she had little prior acting experience in Villanova Theatre, Curran did not expect to play one of the main characters in the production.

“When I originally auditioned, I didn’t think I was able to be Dorothea because I had never been in a main role before,” Curran said. “But then, when I got called back for Dorothea, I read over the play again and fell more and more in love with her.” 

Petersen, co-director of the theatre program at Arcadia University, had been working on and researching the story of Chrysalis for over 15 years. 

“Through various travel grants, I’ve been to Suriname, the rainforest, Amsterdam, and doing a deep dive into all things Maria,” Petersen said. 

In 2019, Petersen was invited by Villanova Theatre to partake in a playwright residency and used this as an opportunity to workshop Chrysalis. 

“[Villanova Theatre] asked me if I had anything I wanted to work on,” Petersen said. “I never put all those pieces together like I wanted to in a full play. So, I did that for that residency, and we did a two-day staged reading for the public. And then COVID happened, and then about a year ago, they invited me and this play to be in their season for this year.” 

Petersen also recognized that this first performance of Chrysalis was very important, because it was the first time the story went from a reading to a full-scale theatrical production.  

“For a playwright, a first production is so important because you go, as you said, from two dimensions to three, but you also realize that this is one interpretation of your play, and another director and another set of designers and actors might interpret it,” Petersen said. “They have to still be true to the text, but they will interpret it and envision it differently.”

According to Petersen, Sobel played an important role in adapting her story for the stage. An associate professor in Villanova’s theatre department since 2018, Sobel has directed other on-campus productions, such as Youth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Beckett Bites. Sobel was also involved in directing the original reading of Chrysalis in 2019, with the reading having been the first chance to include the “important ingredients of the live performance.” 

“Theatre is a very collaborative art form and is based on having live, breathing human bodies in the characters that you’re trying to create on the page,” Sobel said. “So, most plays go through some kind of what we would call a ‘development process,’ where usually some combination of collaborators, whether it’s a director or actors, are involved in the process of working with the playwright as they continue to refine and polish the play.”

With the play taking place in multiple locations, Sobel and the rest of his crew had to face the challenge of being able to represent all of them without disturbing the show’s overall flow. One of their solutions was to include a backdrop with multiple miniature dioramas of each location with a light shining on whichever one was meant to be the current setting. Not only was the use of dioramas a creative way to symbolize different settings, but it also contributed to the story’s overall themes. 

“Part of what the play is about has to do with the parameters that are around people’s behaviors, particularly for women and particularly at this time,” Sobel said. “There was something about literally putting them in boxes and literally having those environments be boxes.”

  In addition to Petersen and Sobel, dramaturg Ryan Henry worked hard to ensure the success of Chrysalis. Henry is a graduate student at Villanova and was involved in Villanova Theatre throughout her time as an undergraduate student, as well. 

Henry was not involved in the production of the 2019 incarnation but was recommended to attend one of the readings by Sobel, her playwriting professor at the time. 

“I didn’t know anyone in the theatre program other than [Sobel] at this point, so I just wanted to see what this world was,” Henry said. 

As dramaturg, Henry’s responsibilities included “working with the playwright a lot [and] trying to find holes in the script,” as well as “researching the whole historical context of the play.”

Henry also provided key information in the playbill for Chrysalis regarding the play’s development and its characters, as well as its thematic elements of faith, science and religion. 

“Braiding those three elements into the program notes was something I really wanted to incorporate,” Henry said. “Also, this process has been very personal and influential for me, and I wanted to make that clear.”

Curran, Petersen, Sobel and Henry all felt that Thursday’s showing of Chrysalis was a success and are looking forward to the next set of shows in the run. Chrysalis will continue to play at the Mullen Center until Sunday, February 26.