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The Poolside Ovid

"Metamorphoses" floats again in Connecticut and Missouri

If you've heard anything at all about this show, it's probably the swimming pool. It takes up almost all of the set—an Olympian, if not quite Olympic, expanse of water that thrusts 30 feet out into the audience. Most of the action takes place in and around it, mostly in. The actors constantly wade through it and splash around in it ... and if you're sitting in the front row you'll be supplied with a towel to mop up the spray. But this is no show-business gimmick. It's a visually exciting and metaphorically apt reflection of the theme of "Metamorphoses."

The best use of this onstage lagoon comes early in the show, in the story of Alcyone and Ceyx (Erika LaVonn and Kyle Hall). When Ceyx leaves his devoted wife to undertake a dangerous ocean voyage, we see his galleon bobbing on the water in miniature. When the sea-god Poseidon whips up a storm, he towers over the little craft, whipping the waves into a frenzy and drenching the ship with literally buckets of water. When Alcyone stands at the shore mourning her drowned husband, she dashes water onto her face for the oceans of tears she's weeping for him. When Ceyx's body floats in on the tide, it does. And when the devoted couple are changed into a pair of kingfishers by the gods, they rise from the water like seabirds preparing for flight.

The water motif is particularly apt because it relates so closely to the connecting theme of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," a book-length poem recounting some 250 stories of gods and mortals from Greek and Roman mythology. All of Ovid's myths involve some kind of transformation, and water, the most changeable of substances, has always been associated with mutability and change. Water can cleanse and heal, and it can also kill. In "Metamorphoses" it does both.

Mary Zimmerman's fanciful updating of the Latin classic was a surprise hit on Broadway two seasons ago, and now it's been recreated in a co-production between Hartford Stage and the Missouri Repertory Theatre. Zimmerman's original has been restaged by Eric Rosen, with Willy Schwarz's original music, and the entire Broadway design team has been brought back: Daniel Ostling (setting), Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), T.J. Gerckens (lighting) and Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman (sound). The show played in Kansas City in February and runs through March 28, 2004, in Hartford.

For her "Metamorphoses," Zimmerman picked barely a dozen of the myths recounted in Ovid's poem. She includes some of the better-known stories, such as Orpheus and Eurydice (Kyle Hall and Anne Fogarty), but passes up a lot of the more infamous mythical transformations, like all those times Zeus turned himself into various animals to have his way with mortal maidens. Zimmerman concentrates instead on universal themes and on narratives that have a particular contemporary relevance.

Two of the tales, for instance, are about that timeless evil, greed. There's Midas (Raymond Fox), here a smug self-made tycoon who, not content with his billions, wants everything he touches to turn into gold—until his embrace turns his daughter (Sun Mee Chomet) into an frozen ingot. And there's Erysichthon (Chris Kipiniak), whose violation of a sacred forest is punished by the gods with an insatiable hunger that finally drives him to devour himself.

Zimmerman's take on Ovid is cheekily, persistently and delightfully anachronistic. At the very beginning, when we're told the universe was created out of a spark of light, a match flares and a god lights a cigarette. The gods observe the mortals from a platform atop a painted panel of clouds, or join in the action by descending from the doorway of a Victorian townhouse. The narrative style, a kind of collective storytelling, has a charming sense of innocence, even when the themes are somber or even painful. The myths are given a contemporary spin, but they hang on to their antique fairytale quality.

With one hilarious exception. That's the story of Phaeton (James McKay), adolescent son of Apollo the sun god (Paul Oakley Stovall), who yearns to drive his dad's fiery chariot across the sky, with disastrous results. That account is transported to Southern California, where the kid lolls on a rubber raft and recites his tale of hubris to a poolside psychiatrist (Gabra Zackman). In this version—which the shrink describes as a classic instance of "premature initiation"—Phaeton shares every teenage boy's ambition: to get the keys to the old man's car.

The boasts an ensemble of ten young men and women, three of them—Fox, Hall and Kipiniak—veterans of the Broadway run. All are talented, attractive—and versatile. They play multiple roles, changing seamlessly from gods to mortals to poolside narrators of the watery tales. And these transformations become yet another layer of the show's enchanting metamorphoses.

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