Metamorphoses at the Arsht: Poolside Plunge Too Dry

Some of the pictures show beautiful, half-naked people wearing billowing white togas while lounging around Greek columns or descending stone steps. Other images depict the same crew positioned underwater, frolicking in an aquamarine paradise, like performers in a mermaid show without the fins.

These promotional photos for the Adrienne Arsht Center's Metamorphoses are lovely. But they couldn't be less appropriate. Not only are the characters far too tortured for this sort of carefree cavorting, but also the water motif is barely exploited in the production.

Writer and director Mary Zimmerman conceived what eventually became Metamorphoses in 1996. The idea: Update fables by Roman poet Ovid, set them in a pool of water, and call it Six Myths. By 2002, the work had expanded to 11 myths and been renamed Metamorphoses. It went on to be nominated for a Tony for Best Play. The Arsht Center's long-awaited regional premiere is presented in conjunction with the University of Miami, whose most talented theater majors share stage time with professional equity actors.

The set, by K. April Soroko, resembles a palatial spa, with a rectangular pool of water inside an elevated platform, positioned in front of a columned balcony, and a stylish projection screen with the audience on three sides. Zimmerman has stated the water is integral to her vision of Ovid's myths, from Midas to Orpheus to Vertumnus. In director Henry Fonte's treatment here, the most literal usage of the water resonates — the ravaging sea batters the ship of Ceyx (Adam Maggio), sending the god and his seamen splashing about in chaos. Then there's the slow drift of Phaeton (Tim Bell), the son of the Sun, as he relates familial angst to a therapist from a creative pool float in the shape of his father's bright-orange sphere.

But far too often, the water becomes tangential to the action, a novelty to work around. Or it's employed only superficially — a drunken character might stumble into the pool in an ostentatious pratfall. Sometimes the water is such a distraction that it overrides the voices of the student actors, who tend to underenunciate. The production misses the abstraction and the metaphorical heft of its most distinctive conceit — the sense of water as a place of spiritual cleansing.

The production's pacing is also intended to flow like water. It's a stream of mesmeric stories presented in unbroken succession, without an intermission. Thanks in part to the sluggishness of some of the material — particularly the myths of Erysicthon and Baucis and Philemon, which eschew the water — the experience feels about twice as long as its 105 minutes.

That said, there is a lot to admire in this Metamorphoses, which correctly channels the Brechtian anti-naturalism of Zimmerman's script and the moral anchors of Ovid's original tales, with their shades of deviance, envy, avarice, inevitable comeuppance, and occasional redemption. The myth of Orpheus (Bell) and Eurydice (Annette Hammond) is as spellbinding as ever, with or without the agua. Orpheus' doomed gaze at his beloved and her subsequent embrace and metaphorical disintegration are torturously replayed time and again, like a deadpan repetition of a Pina Bausch dance number with an ominous musical score.

The rendering of Ceyx and his wife, Alcyone (Emily Madden), is also effective, powered by the theater of mind, as we're prompted to imagine, without the aid of so much as an oar, a maritime voyage and terrifying shipwreck. But the production's high point might be the Pomona and Vertumnus myth, with its story-within-a-story structure.

In trying to woo the gamboling wood nymph Pomona (Mary Hadsell), Vertumnus (Javier Del Riego) amusingly dons an array of elaborate costumes, to no avail. Eventually, he gets around to sharing with her the cautionary tale of Cinyras (Ethan Henry), a lecherous father who, while blindfolded, unknowingly engages in a sexual liaison with daughter Myrrha (Alanna Saunders).

Metamorphoses' darkest and most disturbing parable, the Cinyras myth, finally uses the pool to masterly depth, as father and daughter splash across the water, simulating carnal consumption in a manner that is downright horrifying — and which would have been too difficult to both watch and perform if done on dry land.

When Cinyras removes the blindfold, it's another bravura moment from Henry, the production's most recognizable actor and a Carbonell nominee for last year's M Ensemble production of King Hedley II. Paced to perfection, as raw sexuality yields to unspeakable shame, he believably conveys abject agony in a moment that alone is worthy of award consideration.

The casting, otherwise, is a mixed bag. For the UM students, Metamorphoses is clearly an expert training ground, with its more than 50 characters and its vast spectrum of emotion and action. Not all of the actors live up to the show's dramatic exigencies, but some — notably Bell, Saunders, and Del Riego — will have no problem finding professional work when they graduate.

Taken in its totality, Metamorphoses resembles a theater tradition familiar to frequenters of the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater: Summer Shorts, with its uneven combination of canny brilliance and meandering slogs. It would be stronger if, like Summer Shorts, it contained an intermission — a second entry point with which to dive into these tumultuous waters.