Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center, 443-2222, Tues-Sun at 7:30 pm, Sat-Sun matinees at 2 pm,

through March 26. $10-$42.In one of the many stories that comprise Metamorphoses, Alcyon (Louise Lamson) begs her beloved Hermes (Barry Alan Levine) not to leave on his dangerous journey, or, at the very least, to take her with him if he must go. When his ship is destroyed by a storm at sea and his mournful ghost visits her in her sleep so that she may know his fate, a devastated Alcyon screams at him, "You should have allowed me to come!" The unique achievement of writer/director Mary Zimmerman's luscious, beautiful take on Ovid's tales lies in her transcendent reverence for the human element of myths. In this triumph from the Seattle Rep, stories that are usually sonorously intoned as larger than life are subtly revealed to be the timeless guardians of life itself.

Set entirely in and around a pool of water, Metamorphoses re-creates the affairs of Alcyon and Hermes, Cupid and Psyche and the rest, and cleanly removes them from whatever would have drowned the piece in self-importance. Members of the great-looking cast--including dashing Levine and a heartbreaking Lamson--turn into surpassing visions of Gods and other fanciful creatures, but speak like human beings, playfully teasing the heavens while deifying the worldly. Orpheus' descent into Hades to rescue his bride is accompanied by strains of "Stairway to Heaven," and an anxious King Midas interrupts the narration of his familiar, gold-tinged downfall to scold his noisy, young daughter with, "Sweetheart, be still. Daddy's talking." The production uses its humor to heighten the very real echoes of doubt, fear, and remorse that reverberate in such fantastical tales of lovers who try to reclaim what they've irreversibly lost, and fathers who tragically sacrifice feeling for financial gain.

Zimmerman's staging is magnificently detailed. The set--designer Daniel Ostling's pool, under T. J. Gercken's marvelous lighting design, lovingly reflects the clouds and brownstone doorway that back it--provides her with a remarkable canvas on which to paint her players, and she constantly, dazzlingly, mixes it up. Eloquent stage pictures are turned on their heads in splashing outbursts of dance or physical comedy, and just when the production threatens to wear its water metaphor thin, a fluid, sensuous coupling, or the sight of the Sun God's whiny progeny floating languidly on an air mattress, makes it seem new again. Though some in the ensemble are evidently more assured with Zimmerman's irreverent side than others (Doug Hara as the kvetching heir cleanly wins comic honors), each performer is a solid piece of a greater whole.

Metamorphoses is rapture without suffocating pretense; its unencumbered generosity can bring you to tears. Zimmerman has the sense to give the production time to reveal itself to you. The act of storytelling itself is art, and she establishes that act as something that helps us to endure. By the time we've reached the evening's gorgeous coda, the show has both elevated love and brought it down to earth, seeing its pain and promise as the paths to understanding how to live and prosper. STEVE WIECKING

The Midwife's Apprentice

Charlotte Martin Theatre, Seattle Center, 441-3322, Fri at 7 pm, Sat-Sun at 2 and 5:30 pm,

through April 8. $13.50-$20.50Karen Cushman's Newbery Award-winning children's book, The Midwife's Apprentice, celebrates the emotional and intellectual empowerment of a young girl. As a hungry, lonesome orphan who at first answers to the names "Brat" and "Beetle," Alyce, the story's heroine, soon finds her real name, and more importantly, the road toward a purpose in life. Playwright Constance Congdon, whose solid work includes Dog Opera and Tales of the Lost Formicans, has adapted the tale for a staging at Seattle Children's Theatre, and though appreciative of the story's resonance, she can't seem to make Cushman's winning interior logic theatrically vital.

Technically speaking, the show is faultless. An attractive set by Robert Gardiner features great swooping bunches of trees hanging over a green landscape and wooden house façade under a large, bright sun. People and pieces move on and off with an easy precision, accompanied by the gentle hues of M. L. Geiger's lighting design and a fine music score by Jim Ragland. You couldn't ask for a better physical production.

Director Valerie Curtis-Newton even has capable players on her landscape. Sherryl Ray, who was a fetching Jane Eyre in Book-It's adaptation a while back, has a similarly endearing sweetness as Alyce, struggling to achieve "a full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world." Alyce's efforts lead her to assist Jane (Demene E. Hall), the ornery local midwife from whom she receives a stormy tutelage in self-reliance. During the still-shaky opening weekend performance I attended, neither Curtis-Newton nor Hall seemed to have a clear idea exactly how stormy that tutelage should be, though both should be commended for attempting to grasp for an audience of children the complexities of a multi-dimensional woman.

The main problem with The Midwife's Apprentice is that Congdon has not actively opened up Cushman's story for the stage, and so leaves Curtis-Newton to externalize Alyce's internal journey, a task with which she has understandable trouble. The people with whom Alyce comes in contact--well-played by the show's ensemble--touchingly inform her maturation (she learns to read and write and feel valued by strangers), but most of her victories are page-bound and personal. They mean a lot, and Congdon says a great deal about liberation and the importance of fearless resilience, yet the triumphs remain on the order of "I know how to try and risk and fail and try again, and not give up." This is enduring stuff for a child to hear when she's being tucked into bed at night, or to read when she's suffering the indignities of another endless ride on the school bus, but on stage it needs to be accompanied by greater dramatic oomph. The highs here simply aren't high enough. More than one self-realized moment is needed to perk up a production that keeps its main character in rags for most of its length, and is filled with commands like, "Go sleep over in the dung heap." Alyce's miseries, and the spotty, meditative show that details them, make for a bumpy ride until she reaches her quiet, well-earned emancipation. STEVE WIECKING

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