When technical director Ben Motter saw the set design for Metamorphoses — which included a 30-by-30-foot diamond-shaped platform surrounded by a moat of water — he knew he and his crew had their work cut out for them.
“I thought, ‘This is unique,’” he says. “It offered a lot of aesthetics and elements that I don’t think I’ve seen in other versions if this production. It’s a very smart design.”
The latest show by UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, the play presented a slew of challenges, from how to create a heated, airtight pool to mimicking torrential rain, while maintaining the dreamlike nature of Mary Zimmerman’s 1996 adaptation of Ovid’s tragedy.
The pool structure, built from two-by-fours and plywood, contains a custom vinyl liner that holds 2,000 gallons water. The pool, treated with bromine — an alternative to chlorine used in pools and hot tubs — runs in a gradient; it’s two inches deep at its shallowest and two feet deep closest to the stage, giving actors the freedom to easily walk through or submerge themselves.
Alexander Espinosa Pieb, a senior who plays a sailor in one scene (every actor plays several characters), says as an actor, he’s often had to imagine moving through water — usually symbolized onstage by a long, blue sheet being waved up and down — but this is the first time he’s acted in the real thing. “I can feel my whole body sinking lower into the water until I’m totally enveloped in it,” he says, describing a scene when his character is drowned by Poseidon’s henchman. “It’s almost like I don’t have to act.”
Water itself plays many different roles in the show, from a cathartic companion to a dangerous, destructive force. Director Christopher Herold, a longtime lecturer in the department, says working with water elicits raw performances from the actors and reminds us how powerless we are to the elements.
“I have imagined Metamorphoses as a kind of brilliant metaphor,” says Herold. “From where we all came from and where we’re all going to return, in some form or another. In the end, it’s going to be on nature’s terms. There’s something actually liberating about understanding that.”
To prepare for the role of Alcyone, who is consumed by grief after her husband drowns, senior Peyton Victoria says Herold suggested she read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. “Her grieving process reminds me of the fluctuation of an ocean wave,” says Victoria. “At one moment, you’re saturated in it, then it kind of subsides and you can calmly think. Then it hits you again.”
Although the play’s characters experience intense emotional transformations, the actors’ comfort and safety is well tended to. The pool is kept warm — it’s about 99 degrees when actors first enter the water, and drops to a low of 94. On each side of the stage sits a booth, where the cast can stay warm in a robe and slippers. When an actor exits the stage with a wet costume to change into a new character, a crew is ready to take the clothes and quickly dry them, so they’re ready for the next time the actor goes on stage with the same costume. The Recreational Sports Facility has even been providing the cast with dozens of towels for every rehearsal, and launders them each night.
The amount of work that has gone into the production is phenomenal, says Motter, and speaks to the dedication of the more than 130 students, staff and faculty who have put in eight months of planning and production leading up to opening night.
“We have a huge crew of students here who dig a little deeper, and reach a little further,” says Motter. “Every day they come in and do something absolutely new. We would never be doing a show of this scale without their help.”
Metamorphoses opens tonight (Friday, Oct. 13) and runs through Sunday, Oct. 22, at the Zellerbach Playhouse. Tickets are $13 to $20 and can be purchased online or at the door. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.
To learn more about Metamorphoses, visit the theater, dance and performance studies website.