One of the many joys of attending a PlayMakers Repertory Company production is that upon entering the theater, even before the play actually starts, you can spend time simply enjoying the creative and magnificent sets and scenic design. For its production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, PlayMakers really outdid itself: the centerpiece is a pool. I’m not talking about an above-ground or dumbed-down version where your imagination needs to do the heavy lifting, but an actual pool that takes up nearly all of the stage. The expense and engineering required to construct such a “prop” in the Paul Green Theater on the UNC at Chapel Hill campus, made it a logical financial and artistic choice to share with another production in a rotating schedule. Thus, you can also see the pool star in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The pairing of these two great works has more in common than a need to coordinate swimming schedules. Mary Zimmerman based her Metamorphoses on the Roman poet Ovid’s epic poem, which is considered one of the most influential works of western literature and had a significant effect on Shakespeare, as well as other luminaries of the written word. It is a sprawling opus comprising 15 books and over 250 myths of the ancient world. While “ancient” is its origin, Metamorphoses is timeless, and perhaps its central message to modern audiences is that, for good or bad, the essence of who we are as human beings is unchanging and we can always learn from the wisdom of the ages.

Metamorphoses opened on Broadway in early 2002 and picked up a few Tony Awards, as well as a huge outcry for not wining Best Play. Zimmerman extracted 11 vignettes from the original massive tome, and although there are some recurring themes and characters, each story can well stand on its own, and it would not be derogatory to simply call them skits. Many would benefit by reviewing some basic Greek and Roman mythology before attending, although certainly not a pre-requisite for enjoying the show.

We started, literally, “in the beginning…,” as the never-to-be answered question of the origin of the world was debated by Zeus (Nilan Johnson), a trio of women as laundresses (Carey Cox, Arielle Yoder, and Tania Chelnov), and a scientist (Tania Chelnov playing double duty). The juxtaposition of the ancient and modern — along with the “the more things change, the more they remain the same” idea — was immediately thrust upon us with a mixed dose of serious introspection and humor. The use of three women narrating at least part of a story runs across diverse genres and time periods from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, to the relatively recent film O Brother, Where Art Thou. Here, we have the familiar myth of Midas, fabulously rich, but wanting the ultimate. When he is cursed by actually getting his wish, the gods sentence him to roam the earth for his penance and cure.

Another familiar myth is that of Orpheus and Eurydice (Patrick McHugh and Carey Cox, respectively), beautifully staged as nearly a ballet of love and regret. Others that have become parts of our culture, and even have become words describing the affliction, are the familiar Narcissus story as well as Eros and Psyche. But, Metamorphoses is not just a high-minded, mournful examination of our dark side and fears; there are nearly equal parts very funny scenarios, best of all, the myth of Apollo, the sun god, and his son Phaeton. This is set up as Phaeton (Nathaniel P. Claridad), a typical slacker kid, lounging in the pool, talking to his therapist (Julia Gibson) about his father (Greg DeCandia) and that he won’t give him “the keys to the chariot” to ride across the sky to light up the earth. Without denigrating the other vignettes, this was the highlight of the evening and evoked some of the biggest laughter I’ve heard.

Adding to the mythical and mystical atmosphere was original music performed by Emma Nadeau and Ari Picker. It should also be pointed out that the pool, as well as water itself, was not just a “gee whiz” gimmick. It was literally a major character in the play and nearly every vignette had the actors in, or affected by, the pool.

PlayMakers Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj and guest artist Dominique Serrand together directed what is possibly the perfect melding of the sacred, profane, and comical. In this relatively brief (80 minutes without intermission) play, we journey through the common experiences — across the millennia — of our shared humanity. Whether this “we’re all in it together” message is comforting is beside the point. If we are here to enjoy our lives, then PlayMakers’ Metamorphoses will definitely do that, if but for a fleeting moment.

Metamorphoses continues through Saturday, December 7. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.