Just add water: Metamorphoses returns to Berkeley Rep

Metamorphoses 1
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.

Metamorphoses 2

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.

Berkeley Rep’s tart and tangy Tartuffe keeps the faith

Tartuffe 1
Steven Epp as Tartuffe (left), Nathan Keepers as Laurent (center) and Sofia Jean Gomez as Elmire wrestle with earthly and heavenly desires in Molière’s Tartuffe at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Lenne Klingaman is Mariane (left), Suzanne Warmanen is Dorine (center) and Christopher Carley is Valere in the Dominique Serrand-directed satirical farce. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

Faith is one of the most valuable and powerful things human beings have to give away, and anyone who takes advantage of that faith with anything less than sincerity and devotion qualifies as the most heinous of villains. That’s why Molière’s Tartuffe is so damn funny…and dark…and unsettling.

The oft-banned 1667 satirical comedy has had a long history of production and controversy over the last 350 years, and director Dominique Serrand’s new production – a co-production of South Coast Repertory (where it opened), Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. – adds an admirable chapter to the play’s history.

Sleekly designed (by Serrand and Tom Buderwitz on sets, Marcus Dillard on lights and Sonya Berlovitz on costumes) and full of sumptuous tableaux that conjure artfully composed paintings, Serrand’s production is tightly focused and performed with astonishing vehemence. This is comedy played at operatic levels, and it works. Extremity is a key component to the story, and this game cast plays it to the absolute hilt, both physically and emotionally.

Of course Orgon (Luverne Seifert), the master of the house, is the primary example of that emotional ferocity. He has taken to the charlatan Tartuffe like a Bush boy to a Cheney. For whatever reason, Tartuffe has really bamboozled poor, devoted Orgon, and no one in the household can sway that devotion.

Perhaps the most intense detractor is housekeeper Dorine, played by the astonishing Suzznne Warmanen, whose mix of anger and hilarity is atomic in its detonation. She cannot keep quiet about the absurdity of her master’s behavior, and she will not see him trample over his grown children, son Damis (Brian Hostenske) and daughter Mariane (Lenne Klingman). Warmanen’s performance is so astute she can go from hostility to terror to compassion in the course of a few sentences, which is a mark of Serrand’s production in general: farcical hilarity, darkly creepy satire and genuine humanity all mixed craftily together.

Tartuffe 2

We also see this mix in the sterling scene between Klingman’s Mariane and her fiancé, Valere (Christopher Carley). In their brief but potent interaction we see why these two are meant to be together. They’re both buffoons of the spoiled brat variety, but their hearts are cracked open by one another. They’re an electric combination, and any attempt by Orgon to split them up will end in disaster (or, perhaps more surprisingly, a genuine act of kindness).

When we finally meet Tartuffe, there’s been such build-up of both a pious and profane nature that it would seem the actual man couldn’t help but disappoint. But Tartuffe is played by Steven Epp, one of the most capable actor/clown/otherworldly forces on the American stage. His Tartuffe, abetted by two gracelessly graceful henchmen (Nathan Keepers and Todd Pivetti), is measured and composed and crafty. He’s also an actor of some skill, so hoodwinking Orgon isn’t all that difficult. He can work himself into a religious froth when he needs to, but he conserves his dramatics and unleashes his heavenly theater only when he needs to. It takes energy, after all, to seduce Orgon’s wife, Elmire (Sofia Jean Gomez), who is no shrinking violet. Her disgust at this beastly bastion of beneficence registers powerfully, and the scene that proves to be Tartuffe’s undoing, when a concealed Orgon watches her submit to Tartuffe’s violation, is upsetting to the point where you want to scream for Orgon to get off his fat, pious ass and put an end to the Tartuffian nonsense.

Using a translation by David Ball, who intermittently peppers the dialogue with rhymed couplets (“It’s a domestic disaster to see how he bamboozles the master”), Serrand’s Tartuffe is what we’ve come to expect from the former head of the late, great Theatre de la Jeune Lune: gorgeous to look at, even better to experience the emotional thrill ride from laugh-out-loud comedy to shocking reality to outrageously delicious bad behavior. It’s easy to imagine that Molière himself would be pleased.

Molière’s Tartuffe continues through April 12 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St. Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$79. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Fo-pas: Laughing (or not) through Accidental Death

Accidental Death of an Anarchist.Yale Repertory Theatre.
Comic actor Steven Epp stars as Maniac at Berkeley Rep in Dario Fo’s comedy Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Below: The predominantly male cast includes (from left) Eugene Ma (Constables), Epp (Maniac), Allen Gilmore (Pissani) and Liam Craig (Superintendent). Photos by Joan Marcus

Maybe you have to be in the right mood for a satirically slapstick political farce. I can tell you I was definitely in no mood for satirically slapstick political farce – not that I knew that when I sat down to watch the Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Yale Repertory Theatre production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo.

The last time director Christopher Bayes and his merry band of clowns came to Berkeley Rep – two years ago with Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself (read my review here), I was thoroughly delighted by the expertly calibrated zaniness. Now, with many of the same actors working just as expertly, I barely cracked a smile during the show’s two-plus hours.

To be sure, the play is about an hour too long, and there is one nearly funny joke in Act 2 when Allen Gilmore stops being a police inspector long enough to show off his stand-up comedy skills. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, he recounted the one about two whales who go into a bar. The joke was funny until it wasn’t, a victim of being protracted and pushed too hard.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist.Yale Repertory Theatre.

The off-putting thing about this Anarchist is that I could see funny happening. Other audience members found much to laugh at, and certainly the comic machinery seemed to be working well. Steven Epp, who starred in the Molière, is back as Maniac, a certifiable lunatic who, like the pretend doctor of last time, is masquerading as a judge and as a forensics expert in the wake of an Italian police scandal involving the questionable death of an anarchist brought in for questioning. Did he jump from the fourth-story window, or was he pushed?

It makes sense that a farce about the inevitable abuse of power (at whatever level) would, in itself, be rather anarchic, with actors breaching the fourth wall, bringing contemporary references to a period piece (the action is set in the early ’70s) and breaking into song often and with great gusto. But it’s exhausting, especially if you’re not keyed in to the funny.

The ensemble, which also includes Liam Craig, Eugene Ma, Jesse J. Perez, Renata Friedman (the lone woman, and it’s such a shame she doesn’t have more to do) and musicians Aaron Halva (also music director and co-composer with Nathan A. Roberts) and Travis Hendrix, works so darn hard. I only wish their efforts had made me laugh.

Perhaps it’s the play, which in itself is repetitive and slow going as the Maniac grills the police about what really went down the night the anarchist died. But the self-aware dramatics are tricked out with all kinds of asides and songs and routines that conjure the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers. In Act 2, Epp does away with the pretense of the play entirely and simply rails against abuses of power, with most of his vitriol saved for Bush’s “Mission Accomplished!”/weapons of mass destruction debacle.

Aside from Friedman’s turn as an enterprising journalist, this aside is the best part of the play, and the funny thing about it is that there’s nothing really funny about it at all.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Christopher Bayes about Epp and Anarchist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist continues through at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are 29-$99$. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Berkeley Rep’s Doctor is in… and out of his mind

Doctor 2
MEDICAL MAYHEM: The merry pranksters of Berkeley Rep’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself include (from left) Liam Craig, Renata Friedman, Steven Epp and Julie Briskman. BELOW: Epp (center) and Craig (right) are joined by Jacob Ming-Trent. Photos by kevinberne.com

Maybe it’s a simple case of the winter blahs, but early 2012 has been kind of a drag. There have been high points to be sure, but people seem to be struggling and fighting and dragging around more than usual. Or maybe it’s just me.

Whatever, the blahs were relieved for a blissful 90 minutes thanks to Molière, or at least an utterly revamped, absolutely hysterical, bawdy as all get out adaptation of Molière by Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Epp, as you may recall, was part of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which, sadly, no longer exists, and he made fairly regular visits to Berkeley Rep, with the most memorable probably being in The Miser.

He’s back, not only as co-adaptor, but as the star of A Doctor in Spite of Himself, a minor Molière play that offers major entertainment value in this new version, expertly directed (and carefully calibrated) by Bayes. Watching Epp work his comic magic is such a tremendous pleasure – his Sganarelle, a doofus lumberjack who fools everyone into thinking he’s a doctor, is a master class in how to get laughs by doing just about anything and everything but knowing exactly when and how to do it.

Happily, Epp is surrounded by actors and musicians who are as adept as he and having almost as much fun. This is wonderfully stupid comedy played by experts – it feels like a lark, but it’s masterful frivolity.

Even amid the fast-paced hilarity, there are moments (a precious few) of lyricism and real beauty (the rising of a crescent moon almost brings a tear). Like at the start of the show, the ragged proscenium framing the empty Roda stage (set design by Matt Saunders) gives off a melancholy vibe to start, and then comes the distant sound of a tuba. Musicians Greg C. Powers and Robertson Witmer appear, and they will go on to add carbonation to the proceedings playing everything from the accordion and clarinet to the trombone and the ukulele. The melancholy evaporates with the appearance of a puppet theater, housed in what looks like an outhouse with a TV antennae on top.

Doctor 1

The Punch and Judy show begins – “domestic violence between two consenting puppets,” we’re later told – then the fighting couple takes human form as Epp’s Sganarelle and Justine Williams as his heavy-bosomed wife Martine continue the fight in the real world. But the puppet conceit continues. Every time someone walks behind the outhouse, they return to puppet form until the reach the other side.

Within minutes, we get the gist of this adaptation. Anything and everything goes when it comes to yanking laughs from the audience. Epp launches into Abba’s “Dancing Queen” and “SOS” in fairly short order, and he even quotes the Greeks: “Aristotle was right. Having a wife is a bucket of crap.”

By the end of the show, we’ll have heard an abundance of musical references, from the “I Dream of Jeannie” theme to “Rapper’s Delight” to The Music Man to Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me ‘Round.” Lady Gaga will be referenced, as will the leading Republican presidential candidates (the Santorum reference is pretty dang funny). The score (Aaron Halva is the composer and music director) includes original material as well, and it’s a key factor in regulating the intensity of the hilarity with some calmer, sweeter moments.

This cast creates an extraordinary comedy machine, and each performer is a vital moving part. Liam Craig and Jacob Ming-Trent are sort of a Tweedle Dum-Tweedle Dee pair, and just about everything they do, whether in tandem or individually, brings a smile. I was especially delighted by Craig’s deadpan delivery and Ming-Trent’s tendency to punctuate jokes with vocal runs.

Of course there are young lovers here, and Renata Friedman as Lucinde and Chivas Michael as Léandre do everything in their considerable power to keep the ingenues from being boring. Julie Briskman as randy maid Jacqueline is the epitome of the good sport, even with Sganarelle is motor-boating her. And Allen Gilmore as a doddering and fading member of the French aristocracy offers clowning of the highest (sometimes hip-hoppiest) order.

A Doctor in Spite of Himself could exhaust you with its onslaught of throw-away jokes and comedic bits, but Bayes’ careful direction varies the pace and tone just enough to keep the audience relaxed and, more importantly, happy.

Winter blahs be damned. This production is just what the doctor ordered.

[bonus interview]
Wherein I chat with the brilliant Steven Epp for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.


Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself continues through March 25 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.