Myths make magic in Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses.”
Moving, dreamlike and thrillingly theatrical, Zimmerman’s deep dive into the myths of Ovid is as fluid as its setting: a pool of water that serves as the stage for this mesmerizing 100-minute retelling of some of humanity’s oldest and most familiar tales.
Written and directed by Zimmerman, the show was a hit when Berkeley Repertory Theatre first produced it at the Zellerbach Playhouse in 1999. Now “Metamorphoses” has returned midway through the company’s 2018-19 season. With a vibrant, shape-shifting 10-member cast, all playing multiple roles, Thursday’s opening night performance in the Peet’s Theatre was an enchanting reminder of Zimmerman’s power as a theatrical storyteller.
And what stories they are: sacred and profane, filled with love, loss and longing, these are the myths that tell us what we’re capable of — for better and for worse.
Transformation is the thread that connects them all. Early in the show, Ceyx (Alex Moggridge) leaves his wife, Alcyon (Louise Lamson), for a two-month sea voyage. When he perishes in a storm, the grief-stricken Alcyon reclaims him, and the couple morphs into a matched pair of graceful sea birds.
Later, the aged couple Baucis and Philemon — each unable to face life without the other ––become gracefully intertwined trees.
Darker moments come at regular intervals, as when Myrrha (the graceful Sango Tajima) and her father fall into a desperate, forbidden kind of love. As one character observes, “Almost none of these stories have completely happy endings.”
That’s an understatement. Yet Zimmerman finds humor in surprising ways.
King Midas (Raymond Fox) sets a wry tone as a self-congratulating one-percenter (“Money is a good thing”) whose wish for the golden touch quickly turns disastrous. Erysichthon (the great Stephen Epp) is possessed by an all-consuming hunger, while Phaeton (Rodney Gardiner), the son of Phoebus Apollo, takes a bright comic turn on a swimming pool float while griping to his therapist. Apparently, it’s not easy being the son of the Sun God.
The evening’s most affecting coups offer new views of familiar myths. Zimmerman offers a two-part retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice — the first, with Eurydice (Suzy Weller) replaying her farewell in an exquisitely choreographed episode; the second, in Rilke’s poetic take on the character. Later, “Eros and Psyche” introduces a modern couple dispassionately observing the winged love god and his paramour.
The pool — a five-sided structure framed by narrow walkways — contains them all.
Scenic designer Daniel Ostling adds a chandelier, a cloud-swept backdrop, an open door; Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, T. J. Gerckens’ lighting and Andre Pluess’s sound designs enhance the action.
But the water dominates. Shallow enough to walk across, deep enough to perish in, it contains shipwrecks and illicit embraces, moments of great folly and immortal connection. The changes in “Metamorphoses” are as varied, and as unpredictable, as any ocean.
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and/or 8 p.m. Thursdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 10
Tickets: $40 to $115
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org
Alex MoggridgeBerkeley Repertory TheatreLouise LamsonMary ZimmermanMetamorphosesOvidRaymond FoxRodney GardinerSango TajimaStephen EppSuzy WellerTheater