Going into a play based around the epic narrative poem, “Metamorphoses,” by ancient Roman poet Ovid, you may be expecting a traditional take on the stories that compose Ovid’s work. The play gives off this impression in its opening minute or two, before breaking expectation and bursting into a lengthy dance number to an upbeat song that accurately sets the tone in place. What follows is a depiction of Ovid’s stories through a self-aware and modern lens.
Ovid’s epic poem consists of many smaller stories, each of which chronicles an ancient myth, ranging from that of Orpheus and Eurydice to Eros and Psyche. The Tony Award-winning play, written by Mary Zimmerman and originally performed in 1996, pulls from his stories to present a series of vignettes in a modernized adaptation.
UC Berkeley’s department of theater, dance and performance studies, or TDPS, presents a visually stunning and well-executed production of Zimmerman’s play. With strong direction from TPDS alumnus and current lecturer Christopher Herold and powerful performances from the ensemble cast, this production shines a bright light onto the lasting relevance of Ovid’s work.
The most visually striking element of the production is the set design. The design is largely made up of an expansive square pool, acting as a border for the foremost part of the stage. With an unconventional set design, the stage blocking of the actors is all the more noteworthy. The blocking smoothly integrates the pool into the action in a way that is perfectly fitting and never distracting. The detail-oriented blocking and often dance-like motions of the actors adds to the stunning visual aspect, with every movement seeming to add to the emotions being conveyed.
Furthermore, the key component behind the emotionally driven performance would be the talent of the ensemble cast. Each cast member plays multiple roles in order to tell the string of stories and all succeed in depicting each role distinctly. While this is noticeable and may take you out of the play for a moment, it is not a lingering factor in your experience as an audience member. Rather, the multiplicity of the actors’ roles becomes not only a showcase of their acting abilities, but also acts as a string connecting each vignette to one another through more than just the theme of metamorphosis.
Additionally, the use of physicality by the cast is notable and striking. This is especially evident in the vignette of Erysichthon (Theodore Foley) and Ceres (Claire Pearson), which tells how the former chops down Ceres’s sacred tree and she punishes him by allocating an insatiable hunger upon him, eventually causing him to consume himself. The spirit of Hunger (Verity Pinter) is portrayed by a hunched-over, screeching, nightmare-resembling person that spends the scene on the back of Erysichthon.
Erysichthon utilizes the entire stage, tramping through the pool with Hunger on his back, who herself is depicting this maddening hunger within him through the way she violently clings to him and snarls loudly into his ear.
It’s a compelling image that contributes to making this one of the most memorable scenes.
A distinguishing element of Zimmerman’s play is the humor that is heavily integrated into the modernization. TDPS’s adaptation maintains a strong grasp on this humor, while also maintaining the foundation of drama. The humor is especially notable within the vignette of Phaeton (Yohana Ansari-Thomas), who discusses his relationship with his father, the sun god Apollo, with his therapist (Pearson) while sprawling out on a giant inflatable swan float at the forefront of the pool. Phaeton recounts his confrontation with his absent dad, which results in him taking over the job of driving the sun across the sky, not listening to his father’s warnings and scorching the earth by driving too close. This recounting is made humorous by the moody, teenager-like way Phaeton is portrayed, along with the visually amusing and eye-catching swan. Phaeton’s humor is further heightened by the seriousness of the story he is telling, as well as his by-the-book therapist who provides psychoanalytic commentary .
The play draws to a close by coming back around to the first story told — that of King Midas (Alexander Espinosa Pieb), which was left unfinished — bringing a cyclical element to the set of vignettes. With all the stories having been rounded out, whether happily or tragically, there is a strong sense of resolve culminating from the stage and an atmosphere of satisfaction amongst the audience members.
TDPS’s production of “Metamorphoses” offers strong performances and captivating technical aspects throughout the very different, but equally compelling, stories. With so many details worth raving over, this performance is definitely worth your time.