Pool Party 

Arizona Repertory Theatre gets its feet wet with 'Metamorphoses.'

Two Fridays ago, the day Sally Day had a baby, her water broke twice: once in the course of childbirth, and once when the pool on the set she'd designed for Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses spewed 900 gallons of water into the University of Arizona's Laboratory Theatre.

Cleanup and repair following the accident eliminated a full week of rehearsals, yet the Arizona Repertory Theatre production of the acclaimed 2001 play, which re-imagines Ovid's tales of mythological transformation, should still open on schedule Oct. 22.

The accident didn't result from a design flaw. In the middle of the night, some hoses that had been temporarily but properly secured somehow became unsecured, flopped down onto the floor and funneled the water all over the stage, down into the trap room and dressing rooms one floor below, and even into the photo lab in the art building next door.

"We're lucky we don't have mold, too," said director Harold Dixon last Friday, poking around the disaster area. "Then it would go to OSHA and become a federal case. We'd never get to open this show."

Dixon was trying to look on the bright side as he surveyed the theater, littered with 18 little turbo dryers and dehumidifiers, and watched water continue to drain into huge barrels in the basement. After all, only 900 gallons had leaked out of the 18-foot-diameter pool donated by Baja Spas, not the 3,000 the pool will hold during the performance run. Sure, the sprung-wood stage floor had buckled, but not enough to pose a safety hazard, and the really bad spots will be covered by the pool, so major repairs can wait until Metamorphoses closes next month and the theater goes dark until February.

Undaunted, Dixon says the pool will still be central to the production. Doing a "dry" version of Metamorphoses would essentially mean scrapping Zimmerman's adaptation.

"She made water central to the stories, because it becomes the metaphor for change," said Dixon. "It's fluid, it's a fundamental element like earth and fire, and it's a physical manifestation on stage of the characters' transformations."

The pool gained significant press notice during the play's New York run, which Zimmerman directed. But Dixon and Day reject the notion that having a pool on stage was merely a publicity stunt.

"Harold's idea is that the script is looking at community, and a ritual of story, and re-creating those stories through time," said Day by telephone, the squeaks and hiccups of a newborn audible behind her words. "So I looked at various religious ceremonies, and I kept finding this idea of water as a symbol of life itself--after all, if you're looking for life on other planets, you're looking for water. So we developed this idea of the pool as a communion vessel for water."

In the original Metamorphoses, Roman poet Ovid collected more than 100 stories of transformation from Greek and Roman myths: Usually through the meddling of gods, lovestruck humans are either punished or saved by morphing into plants or animals or stars. Much of Ovid's action takes place by lakes, rivers or oceans; think of Narcissus, obsessed with his reflection in a pond, metamorphosing into a flower.

Zimmerman has re-imagined the details of some of Ovid's stories in more modern contexts; Phaeton, for example, lolls on an inflated mattress in a swimming pool while telling his psychiatrist why he envies his dad, the sun god.

"I have such reverence for this script," said Day. "It's very beautiful, very fun. This writer has gotten to this wonderful level of wanting humanity to revere itself in all its silliness. I cried when I read the script, because it's on a level that I would call spiritual, if that word weren't so overused. And without the water, the actors aren't getting that commitment, that immersion you want from the script. There's a surrender from the actors you want. And the (drama) department had to surrender, too; they had to surrender to this element that's out of control but alive. It has risks."

Technical director Jeremy Rinder suspects that after the pool leak, the department won't surrender so much as issue a new sheaf of regulations concerning the use of water on stage, much as there already exist strict rules for employing pyrotechnics and gunshots.

"Our work already needs to be of a fairly high standard to satisfy the public eye and for the safety of the actors," Rinder said. Besides the pool, the Metamorphoses set includes an elevator that transports the gods from on high to earth and back--another big aesthetic and technical challenge, from grinding the right finish on the sheet-metal clouds to getting the lift to operate silently.

But water complicates a production more than almost any other element. "Water produces humidity, so you have to deal with that in the theater," said Rinder. "We had to talk to the building's engineers to make sure the weight of the water wouldn't collapse the floor. And the pool needs to be heated, and the water needs to be chemically treated for the actors' health."

Said Dixon, "It's like we're doing a Shamu show. We need a big supply of towels and robes backstage, and we're having to put carpet down everywhere the actors are going to be walking in bare, wet feet, so they don't slip. And they can't use hair products, no lotions, no deodorant, or we'll wind up with surface scum."

Dixon said the actors used their week off as a "gestation period, so they can pull back from that constant state of artistic tension, and come back with fresher ideas and a more mature approach."

Meanwhile, Rinder, whose crews are already at work on Guys and Dolls, which will open in the UA's other main theater next month, was plotting how to reinstall the entire Metamorphoses set, including the pool, in less than a quarter of the time it initially took to load it. Faculty, staff and even students from outside the department helped break down and salvage all but about $50 of materials the day of the accident, but reconstruction is entirely up to Rinder's crew.

"We're gonna try to load in the whole set in six to eight hours so the sound and light crews can have time to do their troubleshooting before the actors come in," Rinder said. "If we pull this off, we'll all probably qualify for a NASCAR pit crew."

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