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PlayMakers debuts pair of water-themed productions

Love, redemption, mythology and chlorine take center stage at the Center for Dramatic Art Saturday night.

PlayMakers Repertory Company will be performing William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” in rotating shows, beginning with “The Tempest” Saturday and “Metamorphoses” Sunday.

“The Tempest” is about Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, who plots to restore his and his daughter’s dynasty. “Metamorphoses,” a Broadway production, revolves around King Midas and other mythological characters in a contemporary setting.

A central concept to both of the plays is water, and PlayMakers is representing it quite literally — with a 15-ton pool constructed onstage in the Paul Green Theatre at the Center for Dramatic Art.

Joseph Haj, co-director of the two productions, said he has been waiting for years to do a play based around water. He finally found his opportunity this summer, after the theater’s 25-year-old fixed unit stage was removed.

‘“Metamorphoses’ is a play that is written and designed to be in or around a pool of water, and I’ve been wanting to do it with a pool of water since I started here at PlayMakers,” Haj said.

‘“The Tempest’ is a play where water and the sea figure mightily in the language and metaphor of the play, so I thought it would be interesting to put them in a conversation — as two plays that take water as their central metaphor.”

Haj tapped Dominique Serrand, a PlayMakers guest artist, to co-direct the plays with him. Serrand directed Moliere’s “Imaginary Invalid” last fall for PlayMakers.

Serrand said the two shows’ rehearsal dynamics vary, with some days focused on scenes from both pieces, and others devoted to longer strands of one of the plays.

Ari Picker and Emma Nadeau, members of Triangle-area band Lost in the Trees, worked with both directors to devise music for the project — none of which includes any recorded sound.

Jeffrey Blair Cornell, associate chairman of the department of dramatic art, plays Caliban in “The Tempest” and King Midas in “Metamorphoses.”

“It’s interesting to see these old stories still resonate,” Cornell said.

“There’s a line in ‘Metamorphoses’ that goes, ‘Dreams are private myths, and myths are public dreams,’ so it’s that idea that these stories still speak to us because they’re so universal — all of us are still trying to answer these questions and learn these lessons,” he said.

Serrand said as a director he asks and grapples with the same questions that audience members do.

“I always say that I like to do a play because I like to understand it. It’s a way to discover what it really means and where it wants to go,” Serrand said.

“There are a million interpretations of a play and part of what’s most interesting is to see which one you — or in this case two people together — will bring to the stage.”

PlayMakers hosted “The Vision Series: Directors in Conversation” on Oct. 23 in the Paul Green Theatre, which featured Haj and Serrand, co-scenic and costume designers McKay Coble and Jan Chambers and “Lost in the Trees” members Picker and Nadeau.

The group talked about the artistic vision behind the project, as well as the collaborations between acting, music and costume and set design that culminated in the productions.

Perched along the edge of the massive pool, the directors and designers also talked about the biggest challenge of the productions — the water.

“Adding water changes everything,” Haj said. “Water is a huge multiplier in so many ways, so we have many unknowns coming into tech week.”

Coble and Chambers talked about the structural engineering that went into the installation of the pool, as well as the costumes, makeup and hair of the actors that are greatly affected by the chlorinated water.

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Coble explained that in addition to a costume plot — a list of which actors are in which scenes — the designers also made a “wet plot,” a list of whose costume is wet at what time.

“We go through lots of underwear,” she said.

Maren Searle, a UNC graduate student, is one of the many cast members with roles in both plays — she appears as Ariel in “The Tempest” and various roles in “Metamorphoses,” including a goddess and an abandoned wife.

Searle said although the water poses challenges in terms of movement and keeping everybody safe, beginning rehearsals in the water has also served as a huge enhancement to both performances.

“The water becomes your scene partner — it’s like having another actor onstage because it reacts to your movement, and it deepens the story. It supports you onstage like another actor would,” she said.

Haj said the ambition of the entire company to tackle new and uncertain projects is what he loves about working with PlayMakers and what made the 15-ton pool possible.

“The company is always eager to do the hard thing, the impossible thing, so it provides so many opportunities for us,” he said.

“You know, they put you in these jobs — they ask you to dream, and they ask you to dream big.”