Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a vivid reimagining of Greek mythology

Two figures dressed in white robes stand in a pool while engaged in a yearning half embrace as two people sit at the edge of the pool behind them and watch. Another man stands in the foreground and looks back at the people embracing, also in the pool as the water is up to his waist.
Kevin Berne/Courtesy

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Flaunting a backdrop of glowing pastel clouds, an ornate chandelier and a diamond shaped pool of reflective water, the set of “Metamorphoses” left the audience in awe on its public opening night Jan. 31 at Peet’s Theatre. Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, “Metamorphoses” is based on Roman poet Ovid’s narrative epic of the same name. The play is a compilation of various stories from Greek mythology, including the romantic tragedies of Alcyone and Ceyx, Orpheus and Eurydice, Cupid and Psyche, and other tales with modern twists.

As an anthology, the play makes its segments distinct through dramatic lighting shifts and costume changes. In each segment, there is a god or goddess who presided over the mortals and the telling of their stories. The respective immortal figure is cleverly placed highest on a loft above the left side of the stage and furthest away from the audience. This placement creates a sense of divinity and inaccessibility. By fluctuating between vivid and bright colors, the lighting of the show produces a magical and mystical atmosphere. The true star of the show however, is the glistening pond at the center of all the action. The use of water is unabashed and unique. It seems like every time a character gets close to the water, they are closer to death or destruction, which is ironic considering the fact that water is also presented as the source of life. This paradox implies that water can be nurturing yet deadly at the same time, much like the gods of Olympus.

The decision to include a body of water in this production was most likely challenging. The costumes would be tricky to remove when wet and the slippery surface of the surrounding stage could result in accidents or collisions. The meticulously controlled methods used to avoid such unfortunate events prove the extraordinary efficiency and versatility of the cast and crew of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. There were no wardrobe mishaps — hats off to the rather small cast for being able to restyle into multiple characters swiftly. After certain segments, several actors come out on stage to mop the puddles. They sing in harmony as they mop, matching the rhythm and tempo of the song. This little intervention is a creative way to keep the audience engaged while ensuring the safety of the staff. Such strategies are usually difficult to choreograph but the routine is so delicately performed that it seems effortless.

The actors’ courage in interacting with the water is also impressive. The water serves as a medium through which the actors can display extreme emotion. At one point, Alcyone (Louise Lamson) literally crawls and rolls through the dark waves to express the anguish she feels after Ceyx’s departure. Her guttural howls of sorrow coupled with her damp locks of tangled hair exacerbate the pain replayed to the audience. Erysichthon (Steven Epp) aggressively pounds on the water’s surface and splashes it toward his mouth in a futile attempt to assuage his insatiable hunger. His paroxysm — along with large droplets of water — certainly reach the audience.

The narrative framing of the play is also quite interesting. The stories are always told through a side character on stage, a story within a story. The most explicit case is the account of Myrrha (Sango Tajima) told by Vertumnus (Benjamin T. Ismail) in order to win over Pomona (Louise Lamson). Perhaps the play is attempting to pay homage to the ancient tradition of oral poetry reading. Another peculiar example is the tale of Cupid and Psyche. During this portion the set is dimly lit in an erotic red and narrated by the subdued whispers between two unnamed characters who watch the couple’s downfall take place before them. One continuously asks questions about the tale like a curious child (Suzy Weller) and the other answers all of her inquiries calmly (Alex Moggridge). The tension between Cupid and Psyche is effectively relayed by the monochromatic lighting and hushed, mellow voices.

A direct atmospheric opposition to this appointment is the contemporary therapy appointment. Apollo’s son (Rodney Gardiner) vents to his therapist (Lisa Tejero) about his father’s absence and a ridiculous encounter. The psychiatrist’s sassy asides, Apollo’s singing that echoes his son’s tantrum and the superfluousness of the costumes and props are pleasantly silly and enjoyable.

This comprehensive anthology of mythical tales successfully blends the abstract narrative form and concrete contemporary interactions. Through clever banter and comic relief, this rendition of “Metamorphoses” maintains and sparks interest in tales that the audience may already be familiar with.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].