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CAST dives into wet and wild production of Metamorphoses

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"I'm approaching this with an if-you-build-it mentality," says Michael Simmons. As managing director of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, Simmons is bringing the waterworld of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses to the Queen City for an ambitious five-week run, starting on May 28. And he's counting on it to make a splash.

It's not the first quixotic project for CAST. Just over two years ago, Simmons and son Robert built a revolving stage at their Plaza Midwood location on Clement Avenue for the area premiere of Theresa Rebeck's topical Omnium Gatherum. But the CAST "boxagon" has become a permanent fixture, put through its spin cycle as recently as last month in the company's held-over production of Sartre's No Exit.

Different story here as the Simmonses and crew build a 15x11-foot pool, surrounded by a blonde wooden deck. When the last of the Olympian gods and goddesses steps out of the water late in June, the weighty engineering marvel will be drained and demolished. After an absolutely unique theater experience that is salty, savvy, horrific, erotic, and luxuriantly poetic and beautiful.

The Zimmerman script leans heavily on the David Slavitt translation of Ovid's ancient epic, distilling the Roman poet's 15 books about the mythical transformations of the gods into 90 minutes that concentrate on eight basic stories. Ten shape shifters portrayed all the mortals and divinities in the Broadway production I witnessed in 2002, but Simmons will call upon 24 performers to come on deck.

Familiar mythological celebs gather 'round the pool with more obscure luminaries, in an atmosphere that seesaws between the primal biblical ooze and contemporary California or a therapist's couch. The juxtapositions can be profound or ridiculous, not unlike the way Ovid himself viewed the escapades of the gods.

Orpheus and Eurydice, Eros and Psyche, Midas, and Phaeton are the brand names here. If you've had your brush with Bulfinch or Edith Hamilton, you may dimly remember the other mythical stars and power couples -- Baucis and Philemon, Ceyx and Alcyone, Pomona and Vertumnus, and the extraordinarily ravenous Erysichthon.

To yield the rights to perform Metamorphoses, which she also directed from its creation at Northwestern University through its spectacular Broadway debut at Circle in the Square, Zimmerman makes only one demand.

"The audience must be looking down at the water," says Simmons. "That meant that we had to raise the audience on both sides of the stage -- 36 inches on one side, 45 inches on the other."

Water, action and words are so intertwined that, while the great building project proceeds on Clement Avenue, rehearsals have been rechanneled to the 25-yard pool at Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics. That's not to say that you'll be seeing a profusion of Speedos, bikinis, or synchronized swimming routines, but actors will need to be amphibious, prepared to perform in -- and sometimes under -- water three-feet deep.

"At one point, Zimmerman's script has a character exiting a scene from the middle of the water," Simmons confides. "And we don't see that character for several minutes. So we needed to build an escape tunnel."

And props that float. The Simmonses have immersed themselves in the physics of pool engineering and the Zen of maintaining 3,000 gallons of water for close to two months. And they've schooled all their cast members in CPR. Seriously.

Most recognizable of these will be Charles LaBorde, who has already starred at CAST in Foxfire and at Theatre Charlotte in Death of a Salesman. He'll be seen as Midas, Bacchus, Poseidon and Philemon. Paula Baldwin, who portrayed LaBorde's wives in Foxfire and Salesman, does it again as Baucis with an additional stint as Phaeton's therapist. And Chris Brown, who brought Zimmerman's script to Simmons' attention during the production of Foxfire, will timeshare the role of Midas with LaBorde and moonlight as Hades.

LaBorde seems to have exerted some pull in the casting -- or at least the auditioning. Jon-Claude Caton, who plays Ceyx; Amy Wada, who plays Pomona, Iris, and an oread; and Jennifer Barnett, who plays Aphrodite; all had supporting roles behind LaBorde in Salesman, which he directed.

Did he phone them all or shoot them an e-mail? Maybe he picked up a lifeguard's whistle.

More summer splashes: Donna Scott Productions & Theatre Charlotte are presenting Once Upon a Festival on June 5-13. Aside from six performances of Scott's Fairy Tale Chronicles (June 5-7, 11-13), there are single spritzes of Criss Cross Mangosauce (June 6), Doubting Thomas (June 7), Marc Hoffman Jazz Trio (June 9), SlamCharlotte (June 10), Crossroads Charlotte Teen Theatre Project (June 13), and a special edition of just do it, Theatre Charlotte's reading stage series.

On Q reprises its hit production of Day of Absence (May 28-31). Actor's Theatre cuts up with Evil Dead: The Musical (June 10-27). CPCC Summer Theatre caps off its 36th season with The Producers (July 17-25), and God help us all, Queen City Theatre brings us Altar Boyz (Aug. 6-22). Meanwhile beware the ides of Collaborative Theatre's Julius Caesar (Aug. 5-15).

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