UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS) is currently performing its variation of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, the series of 11 vignettes largely based on a modern free-verse translation of mythical tales written by Ovid in 8 CE. Metamorphoses is being produced at Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC Berkeley campus — the same site at which Zimmerman first showed her drama on the West Coast in 1999.
Although it is perhaps unfair to compare a student production to the one that later wowed New York and captured several Tony awards, critics and theatergoers are placed in that position when students take on such a renowned, beloved and familiar project. While TDPS’ attempt to make Metamorphoses more contemporary and relevant for its student audience appeared to work well for them, it did not work as well for me. Without having experienced the evocative mood and haunting drama that Zimmerman originally created, perhaps TDPS’s modifications would not have seemed so discordant.
In the original drama, the characters were dressed in simple toga-like garments, with a minimal, yet elegant stage set containing a pool of water. The water was used by the actors in dramatic and original ways to heighten the mood of the myths. In TDPS’s new adaptation, at the opening of the play, a lengthy and not very creative rock dance has inexplicably been substituted for the original production’s uncomplicated melody played on recorders. Now gaudy costumes and headdresses have bright flashing lights attached to them. This time around, the pool of water, although a fine achievement of stagecraft, did not seem as well integrated into the tales. As one might expect from a student production, and with a very deep stage, it was sometimes difficult to hear and understand the actors, especially if music was playing.
Metamorphoses’ tales include some of the best known Greek and Roman myths. The story of King Midas, who turned his daughter into gold, was well-acted and effective, as was the myth of Erysichthon, who, with hubris, chops down one of harvest god Ceres’ sacred trees. Ceres then commands the spirit Hunger to give Erysichthon an insatiable appetite, which eventually causes Erysichthon to eat himself.
Also engrossing is Orpheus’s attempt to retrieve his bride Eurydice from the underworld. But he ignores Hades’ injunction and looks back for Eurydice, losing her forever to the shades. We see the myth once from Orpheus’s viewpoint and once from Eurydice’s. Zimmerman’s more contemporary interpretation of Phaeton’s relationship with his father, Apollo, as told to a therapist was less successful.
In the final and charming tale, Zeus and Hermes disguise themselves as beggars to test whether people would be kind to them, as the law requires. They are finally accepted into the house of a poor married couple, Baucis and Philemon, where the couple generously welcome and feed them. The gods then reveal themselves and grant the two their wish that when they die, they do so at the same time. The gods transform the loving pair into trees with branches intertwined for eternity.
I applaud TDPS’s ambition in taking on this extremely difficult production. It is obvious that the students exerted much talent, determination and energy in creating Metamorphoses. We need more students who are willing to commit themselves to the challenging work and wonderful satisfaction of being part of the theatre world.
Metamorphoses plays through October 22 at Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC campus. Tickets are on sale through the TDPS Box Office or at the door.