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I never 'Metamorphoses' I didn't like

At the opening of Southern Oregon University's brilliant production of "Metamorphoses," an actor leans over into the inches-deep, expansive pool and splashes water, ritual-like, onto her face. All of the 15 actors will interact with the water in some way, and the water with them.

We're in the world of myth, where humans become birds and trees and flowers and where the gods speak to and engage with the humans. And we're in the world of theater, where the actors become multiple characters and speak directly to us.

"Metamorphoses" playwright and original director Mary Zimmerman has taken Ovid's stories — King Midas, Cupid and Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice, among others — remained faithful to their timeless truths, and served them up for modern audiences.

She's added scientists, psychologists, contemporary language alongside kings, queens, gods and goddesses and poetry. And she's incorporated movement and snippets of music to underscore her themes, which SOU sound designer Tim Brown has inserted almost haiku-like.

Costume designer Hannah Wold has dressed the cast in Greek tunics, outfits from the 19th through 21st centuries and non-period-specific dresses, cloaks and tops. Sean O'Skea's set and Matthew Stiles' lighting are spare. Grays and light blues predominate the large rectangular pieces that float on the back walls above the pool. Stairs give the gods their entry into the world of the humans.

These choices reinforce the timeliness of these stories as they have been passed down through the ages. Even the directing style moves from stylized, almost archetypal, to cleverly contemporary. Thus in one scene we have the cast gathered in the pool with candles, speaking as a chorus and moving as one. In another scene, the race between Atalanta and Melanion is accompanied by music from "Chariot of the Gods" as the two runners, dressed in track-meet attire, crouch down at the starting line and run in slow motion across the stage. In this scene, as in some others, no words are spoken, no introduction is given. We know these stories and smile in recognition.

Ovid's "Metamorphoses," written in 13 B.C., filled 15 volumes with the creation and history of the world. Zimmerman has chosen 10. "Metamorphoses" earned Zimmerman a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play in 2002. As originally staged, the show was a combination musical, straight play and dance work.

Dale Luciano, SOU professor of theater arts, directed the SOU production. In a press release he said, "Most of Ovid's stories deal with the power of love, in its many guises, to transform our souls, our bodies and our lives. Another theme is the idea of 'the soul wandering around in the dark, until it finds love,' whether that love be tragic or divine."

The cast and crew are to be commended for taking on such a huge piece of theater and making it their own. SOU did that recently with "Urinetown," prompting some people who saw the original in New York to say they preferred SOU's production.

"Metamorphoses" is an ensemble piece and Luciano has assembled a very talented group of artists to bring these stories wondrously to life.

The play runs at 8 tonight and Saturday and then Thursday through June 1 with a 2 p.m. matinee next Saturday at the Theatre Arts' Center Stage Theatre, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland.

Reach Arts and Entertainment Editor Richard Moeschl at 776-4486, or e-mail rmoeschl@mailtribune.com.