Alex Moggridge (foreground) with Rodney Gardiner and Louise Lamson (background, l to r) in Metamorphoses at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

With vivid and fond remembrances of Berkeley Rep’s extraordinary 1999 production of acclaimed writer and director Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (produced at UC’s Zellerbach Playhouse), I wondered whether a re-do could ever live up to my memories of the original.

Happily, this 2019 co-production with the Guthrie Theater is even more powerful, more effective and ultimately more satisfying than my 20-year-old recollection of the Rep’s original. The transcendent, evocative mood and haunting quality of the dramatic presentation have been kept alive, with a welcome increased touch of humor. The talented cast, some of whom appeared in the original Rep and other Metamorphoses productions, are uniformly first-rate. 

Metamorphoses, a series of 11 vignettes primarily based on a modern, free-verse translation, by David R. Slavitt, of mythical Greek and Roman tales written by Ovid in 8 AD, contains a re-telling of some of the classics of all Greek and Roman myths. In each story, the characters undergo a dramatic change — a metamorphosis — caused by love, betrayal, or hope.

The tales range from the creation of the world to Midas (Raymond Fox), who turned his daughter into gold, to Orpheus who attempted to retrieve his bride Eurydice from the underworld but made the fatal mistake of looking back at her. In one unforgettable myth, Erysichthon (Stephen Epps, Treasure Island, Tartuffe), chops down one of god Ceres’ sacred trees. Ceres then commands the spirit Hunger (Sango Tajima) to give Erysichthon an insatiable appetite, which eventually causes Erysichthon to eat himself.

Phaeton’s relationship with his father, Apollo, is the only story that has been given a contemporary treatment. Perhaps because of that, it seems less successful than the others. After many years of feeling neglected, Phaeton (Rodney Gardiner) confronts his father and convinces his father to let him control the sun. Unfortunately, Phaeton burns the Earth. Phaeton reveals his story to the Therapist (Lisa Tejero), who psychoanalyzes Phaeton’s experience.

The dark wading pool of water with a platform bordering it on all sides is an exceptional feature of the set, and occupies most of the stage. The pool is central to all of the stories, although its function changes from tale to tale. It is used as a laundry basin, a swimming pool, an ocean and the River Styx. The scenic designer Daniel Ostling, reprises his original Rep work, as do costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, lighting designer T.J. Gerckens, and sound designer Andre Pluess. The haunting original music by Willy Schwarz is still a perfect accompaniment.

MacArthur “genius” fellowship winner Mary Zimmerman, who has written and directed eight plays for Berkeley Rep, including The Arabian Nights, The White Snake, and Treasure Island, created Metamorphoses in Chicago in 1996. It wended its way from the Rep’s production to Broadway, where Zimmerman won the 2002 Tony award for best direction.

Metamorphoses has a breathtaking aesthetic, with beauty, grace, poetry, and humor. It is a rare and unforgettable theatrical experience that should not be missed.

Metamorphoses is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, extended through March 24. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...