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Nectar of the gods 

Metamorphoses sails on a sea of sweet invention

A grieving widow stands on a shore and sees the body of her husband carried by waves toward her. The woman, bent on suicide, leans to give him one last kiss, and his mouth rises to meet hers. Miraculously, on the surface of the water, the pair begin moving as one, raising and lowering their glistening, outstretched arms as if they're transforming into birds in flight -- which they are.

It's mythic. It's artful. It's hot. It's like nothing else you'll see on a theatrical stage, and Georgia Shakespeare's Metamorphoses contains one such magical tableau after another.

Directed by Richard Garner, the company's producing artistic director, Metamorphoses presents the Atlanta theatrical year's most outlandish gimmick and, possibly, its biggest creative payoff. Mary Zimmerman's Tony Award-winning adaptation of Ovid presents stories that aren't just recognizable, they provide cornerstones to our culture, such as the tale of King Midas, or Orpheus in the underworld. You seldom see them onstage, or anywhere else, for that matter, making Metamorphoses' accessible, imaginative retelling feel at once familiar and wholly new.

There's nothing ordinary about the production's central feature, a 24-foot, 3,000-gallon heated swimming pool. Much of the action takes place in, around and even under the water, providing, literally, a whole new element for theatrical storytelling. The actors wade as much as they walk and can use water as both prop and costume. Metamorphoses quivers with the thrill of discovery and reconnection for the audience and, I suspect, for the artists, as well.

Zimmerman and Georgia Shakespeare both know that Ovid's Roman-era material and alien-sounding names can seem forbidding, so they season the stories with contemporary details. Grasping King Midas (Joe Knezevich) wears a white suit and speaks as if coached by a publicist to justify his greed-is-good mentality. When Bacchus (Brandon J. Dirden) offers to grant him any wish, Midas asks for the golden touch, and the god deadpans, "That's a really, really bad idea." Metamorphoses repeatedly sounds the theme that whenever gods are involved, you ignore warnings at your peril.

Dirden also amusingly plays impious Erysichthon, costumed like a modern-day developer who callously tears down a deity's beloved tree. He suffers a curse of never-ending starvation, with Hunger personified by Courtney Patterson in slinky clothes and dangling dreadlocks. The episode alternates from nightmarish imagery to dark humor, such as the remark, "The godless are always angry, always yelling at waitresses."

In one of the funniest sequences, Chris Ensweiler plays Phaeton as a spoiled rich kid, bobbing in a pool chair and griping about how he wants to borrow the car from his neglectful father. The rub is that Dad is Apollo (Chris Kayser) and the "car" is the sun, and Phaeton's youthful indiscretion ends with the world catching ablaze.

Some of the comedy, however, feels a little off-key, like the droll but trivial interludes that wordlessly depict Pandora and Narcissus. If some of the modern-day performance styles can feel out of place, there's a timeless quality to such storybook moments as Dirden and Crystal Dickinson recounting the myth of Eros and Psyche as gentle questions and answers.

Zimmerman not only strives to simply present the myths, but to make the case for their importance, and lines like "Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths," recur unobtrusively in the narrative. When Orpheus (Daniel May) descends to the underworld to retrieve his deceased bride Eurydice (Dickinson), we see the story twice. First, we see Ovid's take on the tale, lingering on the implications of Orpheus's fateful backward glance that consigns Eurydice to the underworld. The second time presents Rilke's Eurydice poem, which offers an even more haunting interpretation.

The swimming pool stands in for Hades, the ocean and multiple metaphors, as well. It has an upper tier of only a few inches, so Midas seems to walk on water, conveying his delusions of infallibility. When Aphrodite curses Myrrha (Kelley Ristow) to lust for her father (Kayser), she arranges trysts while keeping her identity secret, and each time they come together they go into deeper and more turbulent waters. Set designer Tim Conley and the rest of the design team create almost unbearably lovely moments, with Park Krausen resembling a nymph painted by Maxfield Parrish. The play contains horrors as well: When King Ceyx (May) sets sail in dangerous weather, the cruel winds are represented by actors who rise from the water like sea monsters covered in clinging nets.

Occasionally, Metamorphoses' meanings prove a little obscure. The incestuous themes of the Myrrha story seem especially difficult to decode. Perhaps it implies that if you deny yourself healthy love, you risk obsessing over something self-destructive, but it's one area that challenges a taboo while apparently lacking a moral compass.

Otherwise, Metamorphoses offers a series of transformative experiences, in which devoted love is literally as timeless as a pair of entwined trees, and materialism turns family members into lifeless objects. The play goes against expectations so successfully that it seems to make up its own rules as it goes along, and can stop to linger on lovely lines like "Remember how apples smell?" without breaking its spell. The actors in Metamorphoses at times sink under water, but the play can leave all witnesses holding their breath.

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