Zimmerman's Dreamy Mix 

The writer and director returns to the Berkeley Rep with a tour de force.

Mary Zimmerman, the lyrical imagination behind Journey to the West, Metamorphoses, and last season's Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, hits us again with another stunningly lovely journey of images and ideas with The Secret in the Wings at the Berkeley Rep.

Notebooks, which animated the ideas of Renaissance man da Vinci, was wonderful, but this piece is even more so, in part because it is more coherent and more deeply emotional. While the ideas aren't as challenging -- Notebooks was packed full of science, art, and philosophy -- the characterizations are more varied and complex, the narrative throughline clearer and more compelling.

Heidi's parents are off to a dinner party, and they guiltily leave her in the care of their neighbor (a menacing, heartbreaking Christopher Donahue), who the girl is convinced is an ogre. "But he has a TAIL!" she howls to her unhearing parents, as, panic-stricken, she entangles herself in a mess of sheets on the floor. And indeed he does, trailing down from just below his wife-beater undershirt and hunched, awkward torso.

But he also has a book of European fairy tales, some more familiar than others, and he sets about captivating Heidi with tales of boys turned into swans, lost loves, evil nursemaids, and a terminally bored teenage princess who shows us why competitions for the hands of princesses are not always such a good idea (is your impersonation of "Chickenzilla" really good enough to keep you from losing your head?). Gradually Heidi is swayed, but the ending is still a surprise.

The stories, many of which may speak to adults and teenagers more than young kids (the piece about a princess who demands that her husband agree to be buried alive with her should she die first is particularly intense), are woven together in what the author calls a fan-like structure. One story begins, and before it finished another story has started. And while everything is wrapped up neatly at the end, the endings are not necessarily all happy ones.

Many of Zimmerman's trademarks are firmly in evidence: the use of repetition in language and motion, characters appearing and disappearing through unusual holes in the set, a floor gradually covered in detritus. The relationship of her text and directing with all of the design -- Daniel Ostling's set, T.J. Gerckens' lights, Mara Blumenfeld's costumes, and the sound and music of André Pluess and Ben Sussman -- is seamless. A girl in a white dress stands in silhouette for a moment, and then frantically digs for something in the floor. As two young people are courting, a chorus softly sings Where are you going my love, my love? Don't ever go there without me, foreshadowing a coming disaster. A vengeful nursemaid grinds plastic soldiers in her milking bucket. There's a lot to look at, and laugh at, and wonder about.

Incest and war and vanity, the loss of love and the cruelty that can spring forth, giggling girls, lamps, eggs and ogres, are all whirled together in a dreamy mix that is funny, sad, and haunting in equal parts. The Secret in the Wings is laden with ideas and images that glow, pulse, and sing; this one's a beautiful don't-miss.


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