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Theater review: Cast succeeds in pooling talent

The main character of “Metamorphoses” is 24 feet wide, 4 feet deep and smells sweetly of chlorine.

It’s a swimming pool, which gurgles center stage in the intimate Firth Chew Studio Theatre space.

And it’s only one of the many reasons why “Metamorphoses” is such a memorable full-immersion theatrical experience. It helps that Mary Zimmerman’s script, based on the Roman poet Ovid’s poems, tells tales that have captured the human experience for thousands of years – the tales of King Midas, Narcissus and Orpheus, to name a few.

And it also helps that director Yvonne A.K. Johnson uses the pool not as a gimmick, but as a metaphor. Sometimes it’s the River Styx, sometimes the stormy Mediterranean, sometimes the glistening well of human desire. She and her 10-person ensemble also use the pool as an all-purpose staging tool and a rich source for new kinds of body language.

Where else can characters express their feelings by kicking water in each other’s faces? Forcing someone’s head underwater? Or, in one extreme case, diving to the bottom and staying there? (Scuba gear makes that particular effect possible.)

Zimmerman’s sometimes funny, often moving script is divided into 10 vignettes, each one dealing with the ways in which mythical gods and goddesses alternately meddle with the lives of mortals and screw up their own private lives.

One of the most powerful is the story of Alcyone, who mourns her husband Ceyx, missing at sea, and ultimately reunites with him by transforming into a seabird. The final, powerful image has them swooping together, through the waves. Transformation is the theme of all of these pieces, as befits a work titled “Metamorphoses.”

The story of Phaeton, the son of Apollo (you might say the son of the Sun), is staged in a more lighthearted manner. Phaeton rocks a pair of Ray-Bans and acts like a spoiled SoCal teenager, who just wants the old man to hand over the car keys. But this car is the golden chariot of the Sun, and Phaeton, unfortunately, commits some reckless charioteering.

The most moving vignette comes at the end, when the kindly old couple, Baucis and Philemon, ask Zeus to grant them a remarkable wish. They want to die at the same time, so neither has to endure the grief of losing the other. Zeus does them one better. He turns them into trees so they can be entwined forever. My face was wet at the end of this scene, and not from the splashage.

The mostly young and seaworthy ensemble – Marilee Bailey, Nancy Gasper, Bethany Hart, Morgan Gilbert, Rosie Mandel, Dalin Tipton, Kevin Connell, Taylor Pedroza, Brian Gunn and Gabriel T. Short – all play multiple roles. I have great admiration for their ability to embody such otherworldly characters as Aphrodite, Orpheus and the half-naked Eros, all while, literally, staying afloat.

This is one play in which the costumers and set designers star. All of the actors wear basic bathing suits, but they often cover these with, for instance, a shimmering Greek gown, or a toga, or even a contemporary men’s suit. Lead costumer Jan Wanless made 80 costumes – many of which end up soaking wet at the end of every show.

And set designer Peter Hardie successfully turns a huge swimming pool – donated by Pool World – into a genuine stage. The entire pool is surrounded by decking, with an elaborate doorway leading offstage.

So some scenes take place on dry land. Yet because the pool is integrated so well into the space, it seems perfectly natural when a god or goddess turns, leaps and dives gracefully into another realm.

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