Arts & Culture » Theater

Eau de Ovid

by Jim Gladstone

Rodney Gardiner and Benjamin T. Ismail in "Metamorphoses" at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Rodney Gardiner and Benjamin T. Ismail in "Metamorphoses" at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre  

"Metamorphoses" is an oasis. Now playing at the Peet's Theater in a 20th anniversary revival of its original Berkeley Rep production, director and playwright Mary Zimmerman's celebrated interpretation of mythological tales is set in and around a shimmering pool of water.

In a desert oasis, such a pool offers relief to travelers who stumble upon it in an otherwise barren landscape. But "Metamorphoses" does the reverse, relieving its audience by stripping away the clutter of daily life. We are invited to a place — and pace — of focused concentration, where less is more and reflection is in order.

A hypnotic movement piece and storytelling ceremony, "Metamorphoses" features a gracefully synchronized company of 10 unfurling a set of mythological tales adapted from the Roman poet Ovid. Through a mix of recitation and dramatization, the cast enlivens narratives that may bring you back to college study of the classics or childhood imaginings sparked by Edith Hamilton.

Easing us into the pool, Zimmerman begins with the familiar tale of King Midas, particularly relatable for contemporary Bay Area audiences in its caution against letting the pursuit of wealth distract from life's real riches, quiet contemplation and the appreciation of art among them. The stodgy suit and manner of industrialist Midas (Raymond Fox), along with lighting designer T.J. Gerckens' magical transformation of the set's wooden walkways into gold, provide reassuring early touches of literalism for audience members who may feel a bit intimidated by Zimmerman's singular style and erudite content. The story, like most of those to come, is easy to follow, splendid to look at, and spiked with humor.

Zimmerman offers the occasional wink to mythology aficionados that may not be picked up by the entire audience — the story of Narcissus is told silently, in perhaps 30 seconds — but most of the vignettes here, even more arcane selections like the story of Pomona and Vertumnus, are made elegantly accessible.

Original music by Willy Schwarz and sound design by Andre Pluess embrace the audience, pulling us into the playing area where Gerckens' lighting ebbs and flows across Daniel Ostling's versatile, streamlined set, and Zimmerman's writing and blocking elide one story with the next, washing over us like a collective dream.

The production's cast, too, is beautifully unified, organically slipping from role to role. Each member is sometimes a narrator, sometimes a character, sometimes an illustration. Among them, Louise Lamson stands out for her bell-clear voice, as do Benjamin T. Ismail and Rodney Gardiner, for adding welcome flecks of comic coarseness to the largely smooth-as-glass proceedings.

Many audience members will find that revisiting long-known but seldom thought-about chronicles of Orpheus and Eurydice, Phaeton and Apollo, and Eros and Psyche will have them vibrating with a profound sense of recognition, as if a tuning fork has been struck in their souls. There's a clearing of mental cobwebs, a connection to the elemental. Such is the skill of Zimmerman and her company in harnessing the power of myth to cut through the distracting noise of the mundane. For 90 minutes, their stage is your oasis.

Metamorphoses, through March 10 at Peet's Theater, Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets from $60 (30% discount for under 35): (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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