Although it is automatic that best sellers become movies, it has been less customary for them to be made into plays. It took, for example, 2,000 years for Ovid's "Metamorphoses" to make it to Broadway. The Roman poet's stories of gods and men undergoing transformations were some of the most popular works in literary history until a century or so ago, when the classics ceased to be part of the common heritage. Many of Ovid's stories remain familiar - Midas and his golden touch, for example, or Orpheus and Eurydice. Others are less well known, but, as in the case of Myrrah, a girl erotically in love with her father, they seem remarkably dark and thus modern. Mary Zimmerman has retold a variety of Ovid's tales, sometimes in a poetic style that seems timeless, sometimes in a vernacular unmistakably our own. The mode she uses is Story Theater, by which a group of actors narrates the stories and acts them out using movement and mime as well as dialogue. What makes her treatment of these myths unusual is that the stage is dominated by a pool of water. Water, the most changeable of the elements, is a perfect medium through which to tell stories of miraculous transformation. At Second Stage, where "Metamorphoses" had a soldout run last fall, the pool was ahead of us and in the distance. At Circle in the Square we are on three sides of it. We look down at the action, which gives it a new immediacy. (For people in the first few rows, this can be slightly hazardous; apparently, towels are provided.) One of the stories, for example, involves a shipwreck. The sight of a toy boat rocking on the water, then overturning as the actors, playing the hapless passengers, flail and splash about, is wonderfully vivid. It also makes a beautiful contrast to the end of the story, in which the captain and his widow are reunited as birds. They flap their wings in tandem, with moving grace and serenity, as the lights dim. Zimmerman uses her youthful and extremely appealing cast of 10 with great resourcefulness. They all have a wonderful sense of the comic as well as having beautiful, pliant bodies. The movement is particularly well done, especially the yearning gestures at the end of Orpheus and Eurydice. The comic high point is the retelling of Phaethon, here a Hollywood brat trying to battle his father's legendary status and explaining his failure to a shrink. The most moving is the very last, the story of Baucis and Philemon, which Zimmerman tells not as the traditional tale of hospitality but rather as a portrait of the highest understanding of love. Wittily costumed, hauntingly lit, "Metamorphoses" seems even more enchanting than it did before, a reminder of the power of myth and, perhaps even more important, how the theatrical imagination can harness that power.
It looks like a wading pool, apparently shallow and with a gangplank built round it. This is Daniel Ostling's startling setting for Mary Zimmerman's re-invention of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," which moved from off-Broadway's Second Stage, pool and all, to open last night at the Circle in the Square.
If memory serves, Broadway hasn't seen a working pool on stage since the 1952 musical "Wish You Were Here," and "wish you were here" could be a fair quote for Zimmerman's beautifully translucent, often moving show.
For its Broadway site, the production has been completely refigured and much improved. Adding to its immediacy is having the audience sit along three sides of that pool.
For here is that kind of theater that asks for total, sometimes unquestioning, emotional involvement, and demands the same commitment with which the actors make this re-invention of Greek and Roman myths totally credible.
It's based, no doubt freely, on David Slavitt's translation of the Latin poet Ovid, who gave us more than 100 poetic stories along the lines of King Midas, and Orpheus and Eurydice; Zimmerman, the writer and director, has selected eight.
All are presented with what's known as "a contemporary sensibility," which doesn't mean they've been dumbed down, exactly, but quite often, sometimes engagingly, Zimmerman takes the line that a myth is good for a smile.
Take, for instance, her conceit in making Phaeton a spoiled rich kid who wants to borrow the keys to his dad's car - his dad being Phoebus Apollo.
Yet Zimmerman is at her best in evoking the landscape of love - a woman vainly waiting on shore for her dead husband to return from the cruel sea, or the old lovers who, granted the wish to die together, are transformed by the Gods into entangled trees.
Her visual sense is impeccable, and her imaginative concepts have the emotional heft of a Julie Taymor (with whom she is bound to be compared), Andrei Serban or even Peter Brook.
This is talent, and it particularly reveals its individuality in the intimate way Zimmerman molds the performances of her actors - they all seem unaffectedly spontaneous, springing from character to character with the ease of trapeze artists with a safety net.
This is a remarkable show that's to be seen not for its actors but its acting, not for its stories but its storytelling. It metamorphoses Broadway into a rare realm of magic.
The images snag on the edges of thought, stirring up fragments of half-remembered dreams. A door opens to reveal a dead lover, alive again and yet not quite the same. A man looks over his shoulder and fails to see the familiar face he was sure was behind him. A warm body dissolves in mid-embrace into water.
Such were some of the unshakable visions that Mary Zimmerman introduced to New York in October when ''Metamorphoses,'' her adaptation of Ovid's classic tales, opened Off Broadway at the Second Stage Theater. They were visions that many audience members took very personally indeed.
It was then less than a month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and the show's ritualistic portrayal of love, death and transformation somehow seemed to flow directly from the collective unconscious of a stunned city. ''Metamorphoses'' became a sold-out hit, and every night you could hear the sounds of men and women openly crying.
It is now five months later, and ''Metamorphoses'' has moved into a larger theater on Broadway, the Circle in the Square, accompanied by a chorus of anxieties. The lore of theater, like that of Ovid, has its own cruel tales of transmutation: of fashionable smashes that lost their sheen as the times around them changed, of little shows that got lost in big palaces.
Has ''Metamorphoses,'' which officially opened on Broadway last night, shrunk into storybook flatness? Is there a place for its echoing cries of loss in a town that is trying to go about its business again?
Well, as a line from the production has it, ''The gods are not altogether unkind.'' And Ms. Zimmerman's little show doesn't seem little at all in its new environment. Its magic has been, if anything, enhanced; its gift for subliminal seduction magnified.
This in part comes from the unusual physical configuration of the Circle in the Square, which has been the bane of many a director but is a blessing to Ms. Zimmerman. The Second Stage, with its more conventional architecture (and despite the unconventional presence of a swimming pool), seemed to present its mythical stories within a box.
This framing of the action initially kept you at a skeptical remove, which was compounded by the perky earnestness of its performers. ''Metamorphoses'' was still going to win you over -- there was no doubt about that -- but it wouldn't be an instant conquest. As for that famed swimming pool, where much of the actors' movement took place, it was safely on a stage.
At the Circle in the Square, as you may know, the stage is surrounded on three sides by rows of seats that rise upward. This provides felicitous associations with Greek and Roman amphitheaters, but the correspondence is more than symbolic. Here you are always aware of the other people watching, appropriate for a show that stresses the value of shared cultural myths and the emotions they summon.
And as it turns out, you have been granted something closer to a god's-eye view. Watching the performers thrash in the water, whether representing a storm at sea or a devouring illicit passion, you appreciate the choreographic patterning all the more. At the same time, looking down induces a mild vertigo, as if that 30-foot pool might have some sinister tidal pull on you.
As before, Ms. Zimmerman's young cast members take on assorted roles to tell stories that are both widely known (Orpheus and Eurydice, King Midas) and little known (Vertumnus and Pomona, Alcyone and Ceyx). The acting remains, with a few exceptions, a tad precious and self-conscious, in the manner of college students conducting a tour of a university art gallery.
It's a style that normally sets my teeth on edge. But it suits ''Metamorphoses,'' which deals firmly in archetypes instead of characters. It also serves a function shared by the quick sight gags (evoking Pandora's box, say, or Narcissus and his pool) and the arch interlude in which a psychiatrist steps outside the action to explicate the value of fables.
These devices engage you intellectually, distracting your conscious attention from the other, deeper plane on which ''Metamorphoses'' operates. And that's in its direct appeal to the shadows beneath the intellect, a realm of atavistic fears, sorrows and desires.
Daniel Ostling's appropriately elemental set divides into water (that magnificent pool), heaven (the cloud-flecked scrim behind which the gods plot and pity) and the world of mortals (the wooden door). Against this background, made mutable by T. J. Gerckens's ethereal lighting, simple props and gestures are used with startling visual éclat.
A red fan, spread against a girl's heart, evokes a damning lust. A woman screening her eyes with her hands becomes every person who ever waited, hopelessly, for the loved one who never came back. A candelabra turns into a symbol for a lack of faith that destroys.
And then there is the pool itself, in which death at sea, incestuous love and the metamorphoses of the title are portrayed as the water seems to shape, consume and disgorge those in it.
Technically, of course, water is not in the element in which we humans usually move. Ms. Zimmerman makes you see it as our truest natural environment: the place in which dreams and reality, the primal and the particular melt and merge, devastate and console.
Broadway has often been compared to a theme park, but it's never had a water ride before. Enter Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses," the Off Broadway hit from last fall that has made a nicely fluid -- excuse the expression -- transition to the Circle in the Square.
The show was one of the first to open last fall in the wake of the terrorist attacks, and its tales of resurrection and enduring love had a powerful resonance that fueled both critical and public responses. But a second viewing, in a less fraught and frightening atmosphere, reveals that the show's appeal wasn't merely circumstantial. It's surprising to discover, actually, that such stories only make up a small portion of a show that offers an ample range of pleasures.
As the city's citizens continue to contemplate the terrible events of the fall, there may still be quiet solace to be found in, for example, the tale of Alcyon and Ceyx, lovers who are separated by death but reunited by the gods in the afterlife, as birds of the sea. But other appealing elements now hold their own alongside the moving felicity of some of the work's themes.
The sometimes troublesome configuration of the Circle in the Square proves a rare perfect match for Zimmerman's production. The stage -- a big wading pool surrounded by a slender rim of wooden deck -- fills the theater's thrust space neatly. As the gods and mortals frolic and fight in the knee-deep water, the first few rows get a good dousing now and then, much to the delight of the audience members out of the spritzing zone (and, it seemed, to most of those in it, too).
Like the splash factor, the production's comic tone has been punched up subtly to fill the larger space. The blunt tone of the humor -- "That's a really, really bad idea," says Bacchus to King Midas when the latter makes his request for the famous golden touch -- strikes a contemporary chord, and it is delicately blended with the earnest, more faux-classical sound of much of the narration.
Although Zimmerman's productions have mostly been seen at regional theaters, her respectful, clear and theatrically inventive approach to classical texts is well-suited to popular audiences looking for something more adventurous (if ultimately no more intellectually demanding) than most Broadway fare.
"Metamorphoses," indeed, provides a nice package of simple pleasures that are increasingly hard to find, together or separately, on or Off Broadway: good stories well told, an elegant structure, handsome designs (from both set designer Daniel Ostling and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld), a sprinkling of poignancy, a dash of uplift, a few hearty laughs. (Doug Hara's turn as the bratty son of Apollo, whose rubber raft doubles as an analyst's couch, is still the choicest comic showpiece.) There's also a bit of beefcake and a smidgen of sex, but not enough to make the show off-limits for most kids; in fact, Zimmerman's "Illustrated Classics" aesthetic is an appetizing alternative to Broadway's more sugar-rich family fare.
Those looking for a more substantive appreciation of Ovid's poetry will undoubtedly find her attitude too cute, but Zimmerman and her collaborators understand classic stories don't need much seasoning to retain their flavor. Her savvy recipe might be summed up thus:
1) Take assorted myths.
2) Add water, gently stir.
3) Garnish with pretty pictures -- and pretty faces -- and serve.