Mary Zimmerman Returns to Berkeley Rep to Restage Her Waterborne 'Metamorphoses'
by Jay Barmann
I had heard for years about director Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, a legendary Berkeley Rep production that I missed by a few seasons before my arrival in the Bay Area — it played in Berkeley, actually at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, in 1999-2000, as an import from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre. It would go on to premiere on Broadway in 2002 and win Zimmerman a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play, and though the play did not originate at Berkeley Rep, it would be the first of a string of Rep productions in the 2000s that would end up moving to New York and earning national accolades.
The play, which Zimmerman conceived and wrote during her first years on the faculty at Northwestern University, began under the title Six Myths in 1996 and was based on the myths of Ovid. In particular, Zimmerman was drawn to the myths that involved water and transformation, from Alcyone and Ceyx (Louise Lamson and Alex Moggridge) separated by a storm at sea and ultimately transformed into sea birds, to Narcissus (Rodney Gardiner) entranced by his own reflection in a pool and turned to stone. Metamorphoses ends up telling or touching on a dozen of these myths, using a large pool of water as the primary stage, and using water for a range of purposes — from the violent splashing used to depict the curse of insatiable hunger placed on Erysichthon by Ceres, to the calm stillness surrounding a nude and blindfolded Eros (Benjamin T. Ismail) as he waits to be united with his love Psyche.
Put simply, Zimmerman paints pictures for each of these stories, some of which are so deeply embedded in Western culture that we’ve forgotten how integral they are to the origins of our language and our understanding of ourselves.
And some of these stories are disturbing, which Zimmerman doesn’t shy away from. Erysichthon (played by the talented physical comedian Steven Epp in his eighth appearance on the Rep stage), is so maniacally hungry that he not only sells his mother for a few coins to buy more food, but he ends up eating himself. Myrrha is so picky with her suitors that Aphrodite curses her to fall in love with her father, King Cinyras (also played by Epp) and trick him into having sex with her while blindfolded. The roll and writhe in the water together until he discovers the truth, and she drowns herself in shame.
Being based on myths, emotional resonance comes at a remove in all of these stories. They are otherworldly, surreal, and at times comical in their details. But it’s the imagination behind the telling that is impressive and beguiling. Zimmerman brings to life these ancient tales with a vision that still feels fresh twenty years after this play was first produced.
Metamorphoses is a cunning and compelling dream of a play, made all the more arresting by its visionary design. It will lull, unsettle, and delight you, and it’s clear why artistic director Tony Taccone, who retires at the close of this season, wanted to restage this play one more time. He notes in the program that a mutual friend at Steppenwolf in Chicago referred to this play as “Mary’s masterpiece.” And, he writes, “At a time of titanic change in our own culture… what better stories to tell than ones that speak to us about the ancient, human, fundamental principal of transformation? Because the old stories, well, they don’t get old.”
Metamorphoses plays through March 10. Find tickets here.