Look at the opening chapter of Genesis and you'll find that water predates creation. In Greek mythology, chronicled by the Roman poet Ovid, water is also eternal, predating even the gods. And in both accounts, as wickedness sprouts up and creation goes wrong, water covers the entire earth to purge the world's evils and enable a new beginning. So there's a primordial rightness to Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, for this adaptation of Ovid's encyclopedic epic contrives to immerse the gods and heroes in water at precisely those moments when we must believe in the magic of divine retribution -- or the possibilities of purification and redemption.
Of course, there's nothing primordial about the logistics of actually staging a play in water. The Simmonses of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, père Michael and son Robert, had to raise the seating at their facility by more than a yard to drop in their own custom-made pool and make the Charlotte premiere possible.
CAST's production reduces the scale of the Broadway version I saw at Circle in the Square in 2003 -- but the wonder remains intact. Aside from the engineering feat of the pool, the company surpasses itself in lighting design by Michael Simmons and Camara McLaughlin and makeup by Melissa Brown and Christy Edney. Costuming by J. Dylan Stout, Maria Marciano and Dot Marciano is an offbeat mix of the ancient, the modern and the fantastical.
Sometimes, Zimmerman is as playful with Ovid as Ovid was with mythology. Ovid tells us -- with sly irreverence -- that when Orpheus pleaded for the return of his bride Eurydice, his music was so gorgeous old Sisyphus climbed on his rock to listen. Zimmerman plays even looser with the Midas myth when the king asks Bacchus for his infamous golden touch. "That's a really, really bad idea!" Bacchus warns before granting the wish.
Orpheus (James Lee Walker II) has to wade through the length of the pool before he can even begin his entreaties, adding to the weight of his heroic quest. The incestuous couplings of Myrrha (Paula Schmitt) and Cinyras (Scott Reynolds) are at the center of the pool, adding to their nocturnal mystery, and Hunger (Kate Aberman) rides the arrogant Erysichthon (Colby Davis) in a costume that makes her adhesion as tenacious as barnacles.
Humor floats on the water as Phaeton (Derrick Hines) vents to his Therapist (Paula Baldwin) about his misadventures with Dad's car. Dad happens to be Apollo, whose muscle car is the sun. Beauty can also sparkle as floating candles illuminate the sweet story of Baucis (Baldwin) and Philemon (Charles LaBorde).
The ceremonial potential of the CAST pool surfaces as the Midas legend comes full circle and the foolish king is cured of his golden affliction. I found that moment more touching in the intimate 65-seat theater on Clement Avenue than I did at the 650-seat Circle in the Square.
All the names I've mentioned parenthetically take to water as well as they take to their Greeks -- and I haven't even alluded to the exploits of Leslie Beckham as Alcyone or Jennifer Barnette as Aphrodite. About the only thing I can find fault with is the effect CAST's Metamorphoses will have on first-time theatergoers. It could spoil them for anything else. Whatever the scale, theater is rarely this rich and spectacular.