Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses at Zellerbach Playhouse

Photo by Alessandra Mello

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Theo Foley,  who plays Apollo and several other characters in Mary Zimmerman’s version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, at Zellberbach Playhouse through October 22, appreciates director Christopher Herold’s methods.

“He blocks the whole scene first and then gets down to the (fine tuning),” said Foley. An Irish performer studying at UC Berkeley’s department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies this year, Foley noted that he’d worked with directors who began with the particularities of  language and characterization, and got to the actors’ physical presence as an after thought. In this case, he said, the emphasis on the physical made a lot of sense.

Watching the dress rehearsal on Thursday night, I had to agree. Navigating Nina Ball’s elaborate, multilevel set, and costume changes that often require sloughing off wet clothes (the center piece of set is a 2,000 gallon pool), the actors would do well to get their physical bearings before exploring the subtleties of the text. And in many ways, the text is not subtle, and neither is the play as a whole. But it is fun to watch.

The play begins with narrators informing us that what we’re about to witness the creation of something out of nothing. From an undifferentiated mass of potential, individual characters and stories arise. Asking how or why this happens is akin to asking how and why we exist. Are we our own, or are we just the pawns of unstoppable urges, here manifested as the gods — themselves whimsical, jealous, and often vengeful creatures? Thankfully, the play doesn’t attempt to answer these questions, just dishes up a feast of small plates flavored with lust, hubris, and in one instance, Freudian analysis.

In what is surely a departure from Ovid’s text, Zimmerman positions Phaeton, sun of Apollo, on a Freudian therapist’s couch (or, in the case of this production, an inflatable swan). Phaeton (Yohana Ansari-Thomas) explains how he convinced his absent father Apollo (Theo Foley) to allow him to take the reins of the sun-god’s chariot for a ride around the world. If you know the story, you know this doesn’t end well.  Singing beautifully and moving with comedic gravitas, Apollo serves as a comedic foil to Phaeton’s cranky adolescent tirade. Here we have the gods brought down to earth for a bit of high-low vaudeville.

Any of the sections could be made into an entire play (and many of them have been). The light brief touch might whet the audience’s appetite for a deeper exploration of these time-tested tales. The Orpheus/Eurydice story is particularly rich, and with the help of a narrator, we’re offered two different takes. In the first, we ride along with Orpheus, while he takes his trip to retrieve his wife Eurydice (Farryl Christina Lawson) from the underworld. A narrator (Claire Pearson) steps in to ask us to consider what the Orpheus myth is all about, and then offers up an alternative version, written in 1908 by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In Rilke’s retelling, Eurydice looses not just Orpheus, but her feeling of loss, as she experiences the amnesiac relief of becoming one with everything. I do believe that’s where the play started (doesn’t everything?), in the undifferentiated dark of possibility.

Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses
October 13-22 at Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC Berkeley Campus.
Tickets are $13 to $20 and can be purchased online through the TDPS box office


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