Metamorphoses

Metamorphoses

When & where: National Arts Centre Theatre, Jan. 29-Feb. 16 (Jan. 29-31: pay-what-you-can and previews. Feb. 1: opening night)

Tickets: NAC box office, 1-888-991-2787, or with surcharges through ticketmaster.ca

Rating: Recommended for ages 16 and older due to sexual content

Donning a snorkel and face mask isn’t generally part of a costume and set designer’s job description. But it’s what Bretta Gerecke did for Metamorphoses, which splashes into the National Arts Centre Jan. 29 — Feb. 16.

The play is a series of vignettes which playwright Mary Zimmerman adapted from 10 classical myths in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s set in and around a large, shallow pool and a smaller but deeper tank of water with transparent sides so the audience can see the underwater action.

Both have been custom made for the NAC Theatre stage. However, since building them took time, preliminary rehearsals were held at Ottawa’s Champagne Bath on King Edward Avenue. The pool there, like most, doesn’t have transparent walls, so the only way for Gerecke to see the costumes and wigs in the underwater scenes as audiences will see them was to jump in herself. Ditto Jillian Keiley, NAC English Theatre’s new artistic director who’s directing the show and had to make sure her actors — all members of the NAC English Theatre Company and none of them scared of water — would appear to the audience as she wanted them to.

Ergo, snorkels and face masks.

“Jill and I couldn’t talk when we were under the water,” says Gerecke, “so we’d come up and the first thing we’d say was, ‘That’s really cool!’

“One of the things I love about my job is, it’s never dull.”

Most production teams cringe at the thought of water on stage, she says: it’s dangerously slippery, goes where it pleases and in large volumes is very heavy.

In this case, though, water is essential to the play. That’s not just because characters like Narcissus have an unhealthy relationship with what they see in it, but because the vignettes are about transformation, often through love (Alcyone and Ceyx’s love for each other, for example, turns them into seabirds), and what is more changeable than water?

The ultimate shape-shifter, not to mention constituting about 65 per cent of our bodies, water is life-giving and life-taking, beautiful and frightening: a potent metaphor, a powerful reality and, says Gerecke, a character in its own right in this show.

To ensure that character remained a team player, a consulting engineer checked that the NAC stage would actually support the weight of all the water.

Gerecke, meanwhile, assessed the performance of various costume fabrics in water: the drowned-rat look is not what she envisioned for these mythic characters. She also had to weight the costumes, which she describes as “suggestive” of the ancient world yet timeless and with an icy, watery tonality, so they wouldn’t wind up around actors’ heads in the water yet still look good on dry land. Wigs, too, had to comport themselves properly.

Another issue: we move differently in water, so not only do costumes misbehave, but actors’ gestures may not accord with what they or a director anticipates.

In reality, says Keiley, “it’s kind of great: actors want to play, so this gives them something they can really play with. You have this huge prop to work with, and they just live in it.”

She was initially concerned that the actors’ engagement with the water would be too deliberate, striking a false note in their performances. Instead, “it was just another way for them to express themselves. We actually engage with water all the time; we’re just not aware of it.

“There are lots of scenes where they do normal things, but in the water, like smoking a cigarette. This is just another world, an underwater world.”

As to the myths themselves — powerful, greedy Midas becoming a humble pilgrim searching for his daughter, Orpheus seeking his love Eurydice in the Underworld — Keiley says they appeal to modern audiences because their essence is still true.

And while the play is composed of discrete vignettes, all of them are about “the capacity to change. And some recur during the show. That helps hold them together.”

Connect with Patrick Langston |langston@xplornet.com