Wednesday, February 6, 2019


Mary Zimmerman (From the translations of Ovid by David R. Slavitt)

Steven Epp & Sango Tajima
The element that flows, freezes, and flies into the sky as steam is the medium in which multiple, life-altering transformations occur in each of dozen-plus vignettes of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, now in a mesmerizing, intriguing, and entirely enchanting production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  In this co-production with Guthrie Theater, multiple myths of Ovid (as translated by David R. Slavitt) flow from one into the other in, around, and above a stage-filled pool of sometimes glassy serene, sometimes tumultuously stormy water.  The ten cast members themselves metamorphose numerous times into new persona – both mortal and godly – as they wade, float, splash, plunge, and even sink into the watery stage.

As any mythology should, this one begins with a tale of creation.  Demonstrating the separation of waters to expose land, the evening’s introduction explains how Daniel Ostling’s (scenic design) blond, planked decking surrounding the pentagonal “sea” came to be.  Both sea and land are under a mural of the cloud-rich heavens, above which gods will look down, both amused and irritated by the things those mortals do.  As we are told, the gods created “a paradise except something was lacking ... words.”  And thus, “a man was born ... he was born so he might talk.”  Thankfully, one of this progenitor’s eventual offsprings, Ovid, used those words to create the wonderful, ancient stories that Playwright/Director Mary Zimmerman now now streams seamlessly – stories both dreamlike and nightmarish as well as with tongue often fully in cheek.

Rodney Gardiner & Benjamin T. Ismail
As two women and a girl wash clothes at water’s edge, one tells a tale about a rich king named Midas (“net worth $100 billion”) who continuously searches for more wealth.  After Midas gives refuge to a jive-talking, drunken stranger named Silenus (a hilariously tipsy Rodney Gardiner), Silenus’ heavenly and hunky pal Bacchus (Benjamin T. Ismail) extends to the executive-suited Midas (Raymond Fox) any wish he so desires.  We all know where this is going as the received golden touch leads to everything Midas touches turning to 24-carets, including his playful daughter (Sango Tajima) -- each golden touch so noted by a bell’s tinkling thanks to sound designer Andre Pluess.  As Midas heads in dismay to the end of the world to wash away the golden plague in a pool reflecting the night sky’s stars (as advised by Bacchus), the path he trods turns golden behind him, with the magical beauty of T.J. Gerckens’ lighting design just beginning to expose its palette of wonder that we will behold for the full ninety minutes of these fascinating stories.  As wave after wave of such stories washes onto the stage, welcomed and unwelcomed changes continue to occur whenever kings and queens, gods and goddesses enter the watery domain. 

Louise Lamson & Suzy Weller
A young King Cyex ((Alex Moggridge) leaves his beautiful, adoring bride, Alcyone (Louise Lamson) on an ill-fated, sea journey -- one in which a stomping, tromping Poseidon and his bucket-pouring sidekick ensure the little boat tip overs and its rowing sailors lose their lives.  Accompanied by the original music of Willy Schwarz that provides both peaceful and turbulent scores for many of the stories, this tale of a forlorn wife who searches incessantly with lantern for her husband’s body ends with the two receiving a god’s blessing to reunite as graceful birds flying over a calm sea (and thus establishing what we now know each December as the Halcyon Days of calm weather when these seabirds nest).  By the way, that sympathetic god is the god of sleep (Mr. Epp), who is reluctantly aroused from his snore-filled repose wearing black silk pajamas and a crown of floating “Z’s,” with more “Z’s” raining down from the heavens.

Benjamin T Ismail & Louise Lamson
As the pool’s waves continue to ripple, stories include those about an egoistic Narcissus (Rodney Gardiner) who is frozen at water’s edge in his own self-love and about a forbidden, erotic love affair between daughter (Ms. Tajima) and royal father (Mr. Epp) where body-lifting love-making in red-flowered waters is the result of sexy Aphrodite’s doing (a devilish-red Felicity Jones Latta).  Much purer love occurs between a naked and blind Eros (Mr. Ismail) and his to-be soul mate, Psyche (Ms. Latta), and between a skipping, jolly wood nymph wearing her gingham skirt, Pomona (Ms. Lamson), and a multi-disguised, wooing Vertumnus (Mr. Ismail) – two stories that actually end happily.  On the other hand, there is the gruesome-ending story of how a long-tongued, lizard-like monster called Hunger (Ms. Tijima) latches onto the back of a foolish destroyer of nature (Mr. Epp) and sends him into an eating frenzy that ends with his own foot being salted and peppered before his final feast. 

Rodney Gardiner, Louise Lamson & Alex Moggridge
Some stories are narrated by a third-party while the events occur in front of us, as in the story told in two versions and from the two perspectives of the lovers, Orpheus (Mr. Moggridge) and Eurydice (Suzy Weller), as Orpheus attempts to lead his dead bride out of the Underworld, with the second story’s narrative of Felicity Jones Latta being particularly and poetically powerful.  The many ways water is employed in the evening’s stories includes in this case a stunning raining of Orpheus’ own tears over his crying body, emotionally moving enough to woo the gods to give him an ill-fated chance to find his lost bride.

Rodney Gardiner
Comedy reigns in the story of the sun-glassed, sun-loving Phaeton (a loud-mouthed, whining Rodney Gardiner).  While reclining in the pool on his yellow float and in his bright yellow trucks (just one of dozens of water-worthy, eye-popping costumes designed by Mara Blumenfeld), he unloads his woes against Daddy Apollo (Mr. Moggridge) to his deck-side, note-taking therapist (Lisa Tejero), who is wont to lecture him and then us in words full of psychiatric gobbledygook. 

In all these watery plots from ancient tales, this cast brings a modern sense and a reminder that change is the one constant present in all our individual worlds.  The zealous and silly, sensitive and sensual, brassy and bold ways these actors portray their human and heavenly selves are in every case completely compelling.  Guided by the sheer artistry and unbounded imagination immolating from Mary Zimmerman’s direction, the cast assembled by Amy Potozkin for this co-production by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Guthrie Theater is mythical in its combined capabilities. 

Rodney Gardiner, Steven Epp, Alex Moggridge, Lisa Tejero & Benjamin T. Ismail
And no finer example of the ensemble’s, the director’s, and the production staff’s magnificent teaming is the coda story presented by the full cast in a pool of candle-lit water where one last act of kindness results in two lifelong lovers (played by Alex Moggridge and Lisa Tejero) being rewarded with an eternity intertwined in each other’s arms.  The beauty of the story’s final words and the hushed scene of flickering reflections welcome an exhausted but now exhilarated Bacchus, who finally finds his redemptive lake.  As the floating lights extinguish, to a person it appears to me that all audience members leave with satisfied smiles and eyes full of the evening’s magic.

Rating: 5- E, “Must- See”

Metamorphoses continues in an extended run through March 24, 2019 on the Peet’s Stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

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