Just add water: Metamorphoses returns to Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses at Berkeley Rep includes (from left) Rodney Gardiner, Steven Epp, Alex Moggridge, Lisa Tejero and Benjamin T. Ismail. Below: Gardiner and Ismail. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

When you write about theater, you’re often asked, “What’s your favorite show?” It’s an impossible question because there are so many ways to answer it. One of my go-to answers for the last nearly 20 years has been Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. When Berkeley Repertory Theatre was the first regional theater to produce the show after its premiere with Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, I was the theater critic for the Oakland Tribune/Bay Area News Group. Berkeley Rep’s theater on Addison Street was otherwise occupied, so Metamorphoses, complete with its gorgeous central pool, was produced on the UC Berkeley Campus at Zellerbach Playhouse.

I had seen Zimmerman’s dazzling Journey to the West, but I was unprepared for the ways that Metamorphoses would knock me for a loop. The show, an adaptation of stories from Ovid, combined storytelling and visuals in such a way that each augmented the other, and the result was so emotionally and aesthetically powerful that it was like a theatrical apex.

You can read my full review of the 1999 production here. Now, nearly two decades on, Metamorphoses returns to Berkeley Rep, this time to the Peet’s Theatre. The actors and some details may have changed this time around, but my original review still holds.

This is not your dusty dry, overly intellectual Ovid. No, this is a splashy, funny, moving Ovid that is anything but dry.

The show remains stunning – still gorgeous, still moving, still an example of theater at its sumptuous best. There are moments that are stunning, thrilling, funny and breathtaking. After Berkeley Rep, the show ended up on Broadway, where Zimmerman won a Tony.

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Amazingly, four of the ’99 production cast members are back for this production (a co-production with the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis): Raymond Fox, Louise Lamson, Felicity Jones Latta and Lisa Tejero. The ensemble is rounded out with some superb additions: the remarkable Steven Epp (a frequent visitor to Berkeley Rep), Rodney Gardiner, Benjamin T. Ismail (Louis in Berkeley Rep’s superb Angels in America), Alex Moggridge (another Berkeley Rep stalwart last seen in Zimmerman’s Treasure Island), Sango Tajima and Suzy Weller.

It’s interesting how, with time, different things strike you. Twenty years ago, I remember being most taken with the tale of Eros and Psyche. This time around, it was Orpheus and Eurydice that got to me. So did the final story about Baucis and Philomen, who, when granted a wish, say they want to die together and so end their lives in a most beautiful and loving metamorphosis.

You never know if going back to revisit a favorite is a good idea or a bad one. For Metamorphoses, happily, another dip in this gorgeous pool is the best possible idea.

Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses continues an extended run through March 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Ticket prices start at $40. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Grand adventure awaits at Berkeley Rep’s Treasure Island

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Steven Epp (center) is Long John Silver in Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic Treasure Island, a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. Below: Matt DeCaro (left) is Squire Trelawney, John Babbo (center) is Jim Hawkins and Alex Moggridge is Dr. Livesey. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Mary Zimmerman’s work is consistently thrilling. Since I first saw Journey to the West at Zellerbach Playhouse, I have looked forward to seeing whatever Zimmerman makes next. Luckily, her relationship with Berkeley Reperoty Theatre is such that she keeps coming back and back, always with something intriguing and, quite often, magnificent. Her swimming pool-set Metamorphoses in 1999 (also performed at Zellerbach Playhouse) remains one of my favorite nights in a theater ever.

Zimmerman’s latest offering at Berkeley Rep is a zesty staging of Treasure Island, and it’s a blast. One opening-night patron complained afterward that only boys can like this story, and while I doubt that’s true, I appreciated her one-sentence review: “Too much seamen.”

But that boy’s sense of adventure feeling that burns so brightly in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book is alive and well on stage in the Peet’s Theatre. The score (by Andre Pluess) is gorgeous, with that lively/melancholy contrast that makes seafaring music so distinct, and Zimmerman’s staging, so full of conflict and danger and sailing activity, is a constant delight.

I reviewed the show for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a peek into the Treasure chest:

We’re there in the Admiral Benbow Inn when the truly terrifying Billy Bones (Christopher Donahue) disrupts the lives of young Jim Hawkins (the extraordinary John Babbo) and his mother (Kasey Foster). We’re in the room when the treasure map is unfolded and a plot is hatched to secure a ship and fetch it.
And, most dazzlingly, we’re on the deck of the Hispaniola when Jim and the crew (of mostly pirates just itching to mutiny) head out to sea. The entire set by Todd Rosenthal, with its ropes and riggings, begins to swing. The musicians play, the crew sings, and the look on Jim’s face captures the excitement of anyone whoever loved this book and dreamed about making such an impossible voyage. In one scene, Zimmerman has powerfully captured the joy and danger and fantasy of the Stevenson’s novel.

Read the full review here.

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[bonus interview]
I talked to Treasure Island adaptor/director Mary Zimmerman for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Treasure Island continues an extended run through June 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$87 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

2012 flasback: 10 to remember

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James Carpenter and Stacy Ross in Magic Theatre’s Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, the best play of the year. Photo by Jennifer Reiley Below: the cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, another highlight of the Bay Area theater year. Photo by Kevin Berne.

One of the things I love about Bay Area theater is that picking a Top 10 list is usually a breeze. My surefire test of a great show is one I can remember without having to look at anything to remind me about it. The entire list below was composed in about five minutes, then I had to go look through my reviews to make sure they were all really this year. They were, and it was a really good year.

10. “The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden” by Thornton Wilder, part of Wilder Times, Aurora Theatre Company

9. The White Snake by Mary Zimmerman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

8. Tenderloin by Annie Elias with Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko and David Westley Skillman, Cutting Ball Theater

7. The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson, American Conservatory Theater

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6. The Aliens by Annie Baker, San Francisco Playhouse

5. The Hundred Flowers Project by Christopher Chen, Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation

4. Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe, California Shakespeare Theater

3. Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, Marin Theatre Company

2. The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, American Conservatory Theater

1. Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, Magic Theatre

Playwright Annie Baker appears twice on this list and could have appeared a third time for Aurora’s Body Awareness. This was the year of Annie Baker in the Bay Area – the first time her work was done here, and with any luck, not her last.

The most valuable player award in this list goes to Stacy Ross, who was extraordinary in #1 (Any Given Day) and #10 (“The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden”). In Any Given Day, she appeared opposite James Carpenter, another valuable player, and to see two of the Bay Area’s best actors work opposite each other in a remarkable play was sheer theatrical joy.

Three of the shows on this list – The Normal Heart, The Scottsboro Boys and The White Snake – all originated at other places, but that doesn’t make them any less brilliant or make ACT or Berkeley Rep any less canny for having the wherewithal and smarts to present them to local audiences.

Another name that is on this list twice is George C. Wolfe, represented as the adapter of Zora Neale Hurston’s Spunk, seen in a joyous production at Cal Shakes, and as director of the riveting and emotionally intense The Normal Heart at ACT.

There are two new plays here (#5, Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project and #8, Cutting Ball’s ensemble-created Tenderloin). They couldn’t have been more different, but they were both illuminating and exciting and felt a whole lot bigger than the small spaces in which they were taking place (in scope and importance, not in size).

As ever, thank you for reading Theater Dogs. This is a labor of love, and it would be silly for me to be here without you.

Happy New Year.

Berkeley Rep’s White Snake: ‘sssssss wonderful

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Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the world-premiere production of The White Snake, which stars Amy Kim Waschke (left) and Christopher Livingston. Below: Tanya Thai McBride is the Green Snake, better known as Greenie. Photos courtesy of mellopix.com

Even celebrated ophidiophobe Indiana Jones would fall in love with the stunning serpents at the heart of Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake, a poignant, colorful tale from ancient China that arrives at Berkeley Repertory Theatre like a giant holiday gift just waiting to be unwrapped and savored by audiences.

This is Zimmerman’s seventh show at Berkeley Rep, following in the wake of such stunners as Metamorphoses, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and, most recently, The Arabian Nights. Like these previous outings, The White Snake is theatrical storytelling at its very best, a fusion of stunning imagery, captivating music and, best of all, characters whose stories cut straight to the heart.

A co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this Snake plays out on a mostly bare stage of bamboo flooring and two bamboo walls coming up on the sides (the set is by longtime Zimmerman collaborator Daniel Ostling). The back wall is a changing canvas of sumptuous projections by Shawn Sagady, often evoking Chinese watercolors and adding depth and lighting effects to the already stunning work of designer T.J. Gerckens.

From its earliest moments, Zimmerman’s script establishes a tone that is at once formal and serious in its storytelling and full of humor and contemporary connectors. We are told of the legend of the White Snake, a centuries-old spirit that lives high on a mountain. White Snake has studied the Tao so assiduously that she is able to practice a sort of magic, including the trick of being able to turn herself into a beautiful woman (Amy Kim Waschke. But there’s something restless about White Snake, and that restlessness has kept her from total transcendence.

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Spurred on by her friend Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), White Snake agrees that, as a lark, the two spirits should descend from their mountain home and cavort with humans in the mortal world.

Once among people, White Snake immediately falls in love with a common young man (who is uncommonly sweet) named Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston), and the way Zimmerman introduces this love story is indicative of how fun and rich her story is. As a side note, we’re told that in some versions of the White Snake story, the connection between Xu Xian and White Snake goes back to previous lives in which the young man spared the life of the snake. This destined them to fall in love somewhere along the continuum. These kinds of details, along with interludes in which we learn the formalities of Chinese drama, are great fun.

The love story of Xu Xian and White Snake, aided and abetted by the feisty and loyal Green Snake, or Greenie as she’s known, leads to marriage and a family. But the course of true love never did slither smoothly.

An egomaniacal Buddhist monk, Fa Hai (Jack Willis) senses the presence of a demon spirit and deduces that the pharmacist’s wife with the incredible power to heal must be the White Snake. So Mr. Monk makes it his mission to destroy the marriage and send White Snake back where she belongs.

Battles are fought, people are kidnapped, storms rage, characters die, and it’s all just gorgeous and beautiful and utterly enchanting. The original score by Andre Pluess evokes the sound and feel of China, but the music, so beautifully played by Tessa Brinckman (flute), Ronnie Malley (strings/percussion) and Michal Palzewicz (cello), is thrilling and moving in its own right. And the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld are just a feast of color and clever little touches (notice the red snakes trimming the white robes worn by White Snake).

Even though this one-act play is only an hour and 40 minutes, it has the feel of an epic adventure and an intimate love story. You don’t want to emerge from the spell cast by this tale, but there’s no denying that the ending, both sweet and sad, is just about perfect.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Mary Zimmerman about the creation of The White Snake for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake continues an extended run through Dec. 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$99 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Come on I wanna Leia: Fisher lands on Broadway

Another week, another Berkeley Repertory Theatre show going to Broadway.

Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical solo show Wishful Drinking, directed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, will open in October at — where else? — Studio 54, where it runs through Jan. 3. The show is produced by Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Jonathan Reinis, Jamie Cesa, Eva Price, and Berkeley Rep.

This is the fourth show to head from Berkeley to Broadway in the last four years: Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel (2006), Stew’s Passing Strange (2008), and Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (2009). It’s also the 12th show in as many years to make the West to East transition. The list includes Danny Hoch’s Taking Over (2008), Ruhl’s Eurydice (2007), Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak’s Brundibar (2006), Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views (2002), Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (2001), Hoch’s Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop (1998), Anne Galjour’s Alligator Tales (1997), and Philip Kan Gotanda’s Ballad of Yachiyo (1997).

“This is the culmination of a long process,” Taccone said in a statement. “Berkeley Rep has a history of developing new work and, with our commissioning program, continues its commitment to bring fresh ideas and alternative viewpoints to the stage. I am pleased with the success of this project, and honored to collaborate with all of the people involved to bring this show to Broadway. It has been truly gratifying in recent years to see our shows reach a wider audience in New York, Los Angeles, London, and other cities.”

Visit www.roundabouttheatre.org for Wishful Drinking ticket information.

Review: `The Arabian Nights’


The rambunctious cast of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights tells the tale of the virtuous merchant, his hideous bride and the beauty who tricked him. Photos by kevinberne.com


Berkeley Rep unveils some enchanted `Nights’
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Thanks to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Bay Area audiences are sort of expert in the art of Mary Zimmerman.

Berkeley Rep’s relationship with the award-winning Chicago-based director and member of the Lookingglass Theatre Company is such that we’ve had a steady stream of Zimmerman productions, from the glorious, ultimately Tony Award-winning Metamorphoses to The Secret in the Wings, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and, most recently, Argonautika.

Zimmerman’s got a great gimmick: she creates beautifully designed, expertly acted vehicles for sophisticated storytelling. In a very grown-up way, she turns us into kids slathering for a juicy bedtime story.

And she always delivers.

Zimmerman and company are back at Berkeley Rep (in a co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre) with The Arabian Nights, a show she originally created for Lookingglass in 1992 in response to the first Gulf War.

As expected, the production is gorgeous. Though Daniel Ostling’s set is a simple courtyard in the midst of rough buildings, with pillows, small wooden platforms and carpets scattered about, the space is lit in extraordinary, evocative, incredibly effective ways by TJ Gerckens’ lighting design.

There are gorgeous Middle Eastern lanterns hung over the stage and throughout the theater, but Gerckens’ lights are so much more – they become a mad house, an exotic night on the Tigris and, most significantly, the first rays of dawn, which could mean death for Scheherezade and the end of her stories.

Zimmerman has selected her stories from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, translated by Powys Mathers, and her approach to the classic collection of tales is compellingly human.

Our story begins with – what else? – a story. King Shahryar (Ryan Artzberger) was betrayed by his wife, so in his rage and grief, he assaults a virgin each night, and then kills her. With so few young women left in the country, young Scheherezade (Sofia Jean Gomez, left with Artzberger) concocts a plan to save her life and put an end to the slaughter.

With the help of her sister, Dunyazade (Stacey Yen), Scheherezade begins telling the king stories of all kinds, usually involving sex, violence and crude humor. Cleverly, and like a great serial storyteller, she stops at a crucial point, leaving the king begging for more.

With each dawn, and with each cliffhanger, Scheherezade is spared, the king is pulled one more degree away from his psychosis and we are treated to tantalizing story after story.

One tale folds into another as the evening flows along, enchanting us all the while.

Zimmerman’s 15-member ensemble tumbles and spins through the tales with grace and glee. They drum, they play stringed instruments, sing, dance and jump from one character to another with ease and clarity. And they’re gorgeous in the shimmering, flowing robes and gowns and drapes provided by costumer Mara Blumenfeld.

The nearly three-hour production might be somewhat overstuffed, but it’s hard to complain when a show is this engaging. For every jokey tale, like the one about the greatest fart in the world, there’s one with more depth such as the tale of Sympathy the Learned about an incredibly wise woman (played by Alana Arenas) or the tale of the false Kalifah, a man who pretends to be the ruler only because he wishes so badly to be anyone but his flawed self.

With so much focus on storytelling, it’s not at all surprising that Zimmerman unleashes her actors, for a moment, to spin some improvised tales of their own. During the tale of the “wonderful bag,” two actors are chosen at random from the ensemble to fight for a little purse that has been found in the marketplace and claimed by both men. Each actor must describe the contents of the bag in great detail.

At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, Ramiz Monsef and Evan Zes were the actors charged with making the audience (and their fellow cast members) howl with delight at each outrageous outburst. “My mother was a toothless whore. My father drank. Wouldn’t you?” was one part of the exchange, and the expression “moon over my hammy” was another.

With its ever present threat of death, The Arabian Nights never devolves into frivolity. There’s weight to the stories that comes from sadness and wisdom, and when, at the end, Zimmerman echoes present-day Baghdad, the oft-described “city of peace and poets,” we sense the depth of history and our place in it.


The Arabian Nights continues an extended run through Jan. 18 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $13.50-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Box-office boom

Some good news from box offices both national and local today. First the local.

According to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, coming to the end of its 40th anniversary season,
Nilaja Sun’s No Child… broke the box office record for single-day sales last Saturday (May 24). The previous record was set a couple of months ago by Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, and that show broke the record set a couple of months before that by Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika. A happy 40th birthday indeed. By the way, No Child… has been extended a second time through June 11. See it if you can. Visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

Across the country, on a little boulevard I like to call Broadway, the box-office news is pretty good as well. The Broadway League announced today that the season just ended (May 28, 2007-May 25, 2008) took in $937.5 million, down slightly from the previous year’s total of $938.5 million.

League members said last season probably would have broken records were it not for the the stagehands strike, which shut down much of the Broadway theater scene for 19 days.

Here are the season stats, just in case you follow theater like some people follow sports:
36 productions opened on Broadway during 2007-2008:
8 new musicals
1 musical return engagement
4 musical revivals
11 new plays
12 play revivals
Paid attendance at Broadway shows was 12.27 million, down .2 percent from the previous season.

Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League, said in a statement: “While we are disappointed that we didn’t exceed last year’s record-breaking season, we are confident that in the coming season, with such big name shows on the horizon as Billy Elliot, Shrek, West Side Story and Equus, to only name a few, that we will have the best season in recorded history.”

Berkeley Rep, San Jose Rep announce seasons

Time to start thinking about those season tickets — or at least cherry picking which shows you’re going to make a point of seeing next season.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 2008-09 season was announced this week. Here’s how it shapes up.

Yellowjackets by Itamar Moses (left) — Berkeley native writes about Berkeley High School and the student newspaper. Tony Taccone directs.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson — East Bay resident Delroy Lindo returns to Berkeley Rep to direct the play that earned him a Tony Award nomination.

The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman — Local audiences are getting quite used to the dynamic theatricality of Chicago’s Zimmerman, a near-constant in Berkeley Rep’s recent seasons. This time out she’s zaaaing up the legend of the 1,001 nights.

The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl — The last time director Les Waters was paired with Ruhl, the results were extraordinary. Eurydice turned out to be one of the best nights at the theater in a good long while. Now the director and the fast-emerging writer pair up for a world premiere about six lonely people seeking relief from a local doctor.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky — Former Berkeley Rep artistic director Sharon Ott returns to direct Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus’ 90-minute adaptation of the classic Russian crime novel.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh — The pairing of Waters and McDonagh was exciting last season in The Pillowman. Now Waters sinks his teeth into McDonagh’s bloody comedy about a dead cat and the Irish troubles.

Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang — Hwang finally makes his Berkeley Rep debut with a satirical self-portrait of a writer caught in a controversy of his own creation.

For information visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

And now for San Jose Rep’s new season, the final for artistic director Timothy Near.

The Foreigner by Larry Shue — A staple of community theaters everywhere, this comedy involves a rural fishing lodge, mistaken identity and slow-witted rubes.

Splitting Infinity by Jamie Pachino — Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist decides to use physics to prove whether God exists or not.

Around the World in 80 Days by Mark Brown (adapted from Jules Verne) — Adventurer Phileas Fogg embarks on the original version of “Amazing Race” in this streamlined, highly theatrical stage adaptation.

The Kite Runner by Matthew Spangler (adapted from Khaled Hosseini) — A big coup for San Jose Rep, this is the world premiere stage adaptation of the hot, hot novel that has already been turned into a controversial movie.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn — This utterly charming musical was a big hit in San Francisco, and now it makes its way into the regional theater circuit.

For information visit www.sjrep.com.

2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Review: `Argonautika’

Opened Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre

Zimmerman dazzles in adventurous Argonautika
Four stars Argonaut-to-be-missed

With director Mary Zimmerman at the helm of the Argos, you know the voyage is going to be interesting.

Sure enough, Zimmerman, the Chicago-based visionary whose work has won her a Tony Award (Metamorphoses), a MacArthur “genius” grant and the admiration of audiences across the country, renders the story of Jason and the Argonauts with her typical passion and flair.

Argonautika, born in Chicago last year and now on a mini-tour of regional theaters, is Zimmerman at her most accessible and enjoyable.

Now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, Argonautika is more fun than the last few Zimmerman shows we’ve seen in Berkeley. Certainly it lacks the oppressive darkness of The Secret in the Wings, and its story is far more captivating than The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.

My favorite Zimmerman work will likely always be Metamorphoses, a work of rare beauty and emotion, but a close second is 1996’s Journey to the West, a piece of epic storytelling that managed to be both intimate and grand, imaginative and illuminating.

That’s what Argonautika is – gorgeous storytelling in which surprises abound. We expect adventure and fun as Jason and his men set sail for Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece.

What we don’t expect is the abundant humor – of the frat-boy and high-minded variety – or the fantastic songs (sound design and composition by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman) or the pockets of emotional complexity as the story evolves into something more than a myth and becomes a whole lot more about human loss and love.

The whole show takes place in a beautiful, open-backed wooden box (set by Daniel Ostling, stunning lighting by John Culbert) that is meant to evoke the deck of the Argos. To my mind, the set seemed to be more of a storytelling gymnasium in which the actors get a workout taking turns as narrators, playing multiple roles, flying in and out of the set, setting up the ship’s rigging and fighting Michael Montenegro’s terrific bare-bones puppets (the giant, the harpies and the dragon are particularly enjoyable).

Goddesses Hera (Christa Scott-Reed) and Athena (Sofia Jean Gomez) are our story guides as well as the guardians of Jason (Jake Suffian) and his crew as they court danger at every turn.

Most of the cast comes from the Chicago production, but local actor Soren Oliver is a delight as the muscle-brained Hercules whose tenderness is reserved for his soul mate, Hylas (Justin Blanchard). Oliver is also the imposing, xenophobic King Aietes, costumed like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon (costumes by Ana Kuzmanic), whose job it is to make Jason as miserable as possible.

Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts gets really interesting in Act 2 when Medea (Atley Loughridge) enters the picture.

The young sorceress gets shot through with one of Eros’ arrows, and we see the arrow sticking through her abdomen and watch her dress get increasingly bloody as she falls for Jason.

When her magic saves Jason’s bacon, Jason professes his undying love and devotion to Medea and says if he ever hurts or betrays her, she should do something unimaginably horrible to him. All the while, a black-cloaked, winged creature takes down Jason’s every word, and we feel the chill. We want to tell Jason and Medea’s future sons to run, children, run, for their father is a lying, manipulative bastard, though he might not know it yet.

Argonautika, which runs about 2 ½ hours, travels well beyond the usual quest-adversity-triumph and takes us into the tragedy of Jason and Medea’s later life, and though we lose the thrill of the adventure, we gain the depth and pleasures of truly remarkable storytelling.

For information about Argonautika, visit www.berkeleyrep.org or call 510-647-2949.