Watching the gods descend, poolside

<i>Metamorphoses</i> cast member David Christopher
Metamorphoses cast member David Christopher

For almost 20 years, Dave Steakley has been intimately involved with the artistic workings of Austin's venerable Zach Theatre, but never in all those years has he been involved in a season quite as special as the current one. This year, Steakley decided to focus on Austin artists and stories that he felt connected to the city in some truly intimate way, and while so far he's managed to reunite the homegrown Flaming Idiots, produce a new play by University of Texas playwright Steven Dietz, direct a modern interpretation of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and stage a version of the musical The Drowsy Chaperone (now on the theatre's Kleberg Stage) that has taken the city by storm, nothing in this, Steakley's 19th season, might be more appropriate or more stunning than what he has planned for Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, a play about love based on Ovid's narrative poem of the same name.

"I knew that I could cast Metamorphoses locally," says Steakley, "and given that Zach's stages are a thrust and an arena [the Whisenhunt Stage], I'd always wanted to create it in our smaller space for a greater level of intimacy. In Zimmerman's original production, the gods appeared above a wall painted like sky at the back of the set, an idea I knew couldn't translate to our arena. So I began to imagine, is there a way I can get these mythical figures, these gods, in the air over the audience and pool?"

Enter Nicole Whiteside, the creative associate director of Austin's Blue Lapis Light, they of the transcendent aerial dance Requiem, performed on the shell of the partially constructed and abandoned Intel building Downtown. "When Dave and I looked through the theatre," says Whiteside, "I just couldn't believe they were going to put on this very complex production in that tiny, tiny space. So we talked about what was possible."

A lot, in fact, was possible. The Metamorphoses aerialists will use six apparatuses: two aerial silks, two hoops, and two slings. The difference between this show and your usual Blue Lapis Light production is that, instead of the aerialists using the silks, hoops, and slings to ascend in the space, they will thrillingly enter from the air above the audience and descend. Perhaps just as interesting, and in keeping with Steakley's wish to cast locally, none of the aerialists are professional dancers, rather, they are members of the Austin community who have taken classes from Blue Lapis.

Now, also consider that set designer Michael Raiford, a longtime Steakley collaborator, has constructed a 3-foot-tall, 12-foot-diameter pool in the center of the space, with a deck that extends an additional 3½ feet between the pool and the audience – "so everybody's kinda in the splash zone," says Steakley – and you'll have an even better idea of how special this production might be.

"We're trying to encourage people to come supercasual to this show, in their shorts and T-shirts if they want to," says Steakley. "I deliberately scheduled it at this time of year because there's no place you want to be in Austin, Texas, in the summer other than floating in Barton Springs or on the lake or in a pool." Or, perhaps, in the splash zone at Zach Theatre, communing with the gods and watching Steakley's very special Metamorphoses.

Metamorphoses runs Aug. 5-Sept. 12, Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8pm, and Sundays, 2:30pm, at Zach Theatre's Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey. For more information, call 476-0541 or visit www.zachtheatre.org.

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'Metamorphoses', Metamorphoses, Zach Theatre, Dave Steakley, Blue Lapis Light, Nicole Whiteside, Requiem, Michael Raiford, Mary Zimmerman

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