One was the face of Nature … A lifeless lump, unfashion’d and unframed / Of jarring seeds, and justly Chaos named,” says Ovid in the introduction to his infamous poem “Metamorphoses.” Completed in the year A.D. 8 and composed of more than 20 episodes of Greek mythology, “chaos” would be the word to describe Ovid’s work. It is loosely framed, it jumps from tragedy to comedy with neither a buffer nor an explanation and, depending on the translation, the text can range between 300 and 600 pages. In 1996, playwright Mary Zimmerman not only staged this masterful, though lengthy, work but condensed and connected it into a series of 10 or so interlocuting vignettes. Now, UC Berkeley’s own student-run theater company BareStage Productions has staged its own interpretation of Mary Zimmerman’s skillful adaptation.
In the corridors beneath the Cesar Chavez center lies the BareStage theater. As the name implies, it is a minimalist and intimate setting. When you enter, the decor is rather simple. A large, wooden fortress, two baths of water, a haggard kitchen sink and some flowers wrapped like vines are all that adorn the otherwise omnipresent black backdrop. But then you look atop that fortress, and you see a girl. She’s just sitting there, reading, dressed in a plain ensemble of skirt, shirt and hat. Like the set, it’s nothing extraordinary, but then the play begins, and both the girl and the stage transform.
Characters ooze out from beneath this wooden canopy, writhing in frenzied dance. Then, a rush of silence. The stories begin. There is Midas — the familiar monarch with a penchant for privilege. Next, the tragic tale of the two lovers, Alcyone and Ceyx, unfurls. With fluid narration and a lyrical pace, the mournful anguish of Orpheus, the comical drag of Vertumnus and the heartwarming parable of the poor couple, Baucis and Philemon, all come to life. The visceral use of actual water, coupled with the expansive use of the stage, animates the already vivid themes of love, loss, greed and family. However, there’s something else going on underneath the main current.
This is a daunting and challenging work for any theater company, let alone one composed of students. Zimmerman’s (and Ovid’s, to an extent) work is so entrenched in this classical realm of abstract language and antiquated, rhythmic structure that it can make the audience’s suspension of disbelief somewhat precarious. And, at times, “Metamorphoses” falls into that pit. At moments, a little lack of chemistry between the actors or a lapse in line delivery renders the performance raw instead of polished. This is especially true during the earlier episodes of the show. But as the play goes on and the actors alternate roles more frequently, they reach a balanced medium between the two extremes: exaggerated melodrama and morose minimalism.
Part of this evolution has to do with the introduction of music. Near the middle of the performance, the actors break out into song, and the musical feel of the dialogue is enhanced by the dulcet melodies of the ukulele and actress Maya Miesner’s enchanting vocals. In particular, the comedic cadence of Arta Gharib Parsa’s lovestruck Vertumnus and the petulant whine of Jansen Trahan’s Phaeton elevate the production from mere recitation to something far more electric and profound.
In staging a play like “Metamorphoses,” director Emma Nicholls took on a, to borrow another Greek myth, near-Herculean task. The density, variety and difficulty of the material could have easily made for a show littered in stilted, awkward soliloquizing. Instead, the physical and emotional dynamism of this production transform these chaotic words, this “lifeless lump” into a work of captivating refinement.