The magic of Metamorphoses returns to Berkeley


Together again (on the balcony): The wandering Silenus (Rodney Gardiner) is reunited with Bacchus (Benjamin Ismail) at last. All photos by Kevin Berne for Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Photos don’t do it justice. Never did. Award-winning Metamorphoses came to Berkeley again, under the Tony award-winning direction of the playwright Mary Zimmerman at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. I attended one of the early productions in New York City, a decade or two ago. Broadway, or off-Broadway … I can’t recall which anymore. But I do remember that it was mind-shaking and soul-stirring – just as you always want theater to be, though it rarely is. Well, it’s based tales from Ovid‘s epic, so it’s built on a sound foundation. Years later at Stanford, Zimmerman signed my copy of the published script – and sketched two little seabirds above her signature. Ceyx and Alcyone perhaps, those passionate drowned lovers, who are transformed into birds.

Alcyone (Louise Lamson) searches for her lost love.

When I heard it was coming back, I hesitated. Could it possibly match the first performance? Or would it be a big fat flop? Especially since I would be hauling a millennial daughter and son-in-law along with me (not to mention ticket prices), I didn’t want to take chances. I waited and I waited … reviews weren’t prompt. The show was extended and then extended again. The San Francisco Chronicle rave review finally appeared, and the the little man was out of his chair clapping.

A good sign. But it’s easy to imagine how a play that centers on a big pool of water in the middle of the stage could flop. Check out the videos on Youtube to see what I mean. It’s a play that needs crackerjack timing and professionalism, but also a lot of resources to manage the pool that can turn skin to parchment and rust curtain clips.

The three of us caught the final weekend of the show, and we’re glad we did. Although this production was slow to get started, the second half picked up an irreversible momentum with Orpheus and Eurydice, Eros and Psyche, and others.

Yes, yes, I know that Eros and Psyche aren’t in Ovid; she included them anyway.

“I’ll tell you what drew me to it – and what continues to draw me to it – is that the word Psyche, in Greek, means ‘the soul,'” Zimmerman explains in the theater program. “There’s this element to the story which is fairy-tale-like, and there’s this injunction that Psyche must not look directly on love. That love is very dangerous or forbidden. It’s mysterious to me. I’ve been with this show for a while. For decades. I’m still not to the bottom of that mystery.”

“Let me die the moment my love dies,” say the cast members in the finale. “Let me not outlive my own capacity to love.”

I wondered if the bereaved and hysterical Alcyone would be as good as I remembered. I had my doubts when actress Louise Lamson was barely audible in the first scene (all performers have multiple roles). Yet in her doomed search for Ceyx, she seemed exactly as I remembered. And so it was: I checked the program, and Lamson played in both the Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, all those years ago.

Phaeton (Rodney Gardiner) talks to his therapist. (Photo: Berkeley Rep/Berne)

Steven Epp as Morpheus

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