Playwright Mary Zimmerman takes on a daunting task for a small theater company in her adaptation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses." She calls for a wading pool to take up much of the stage. It's not merely a gimmick. "Metamorphoses" is about transformation, and water is an element that cleans, purifies and changes the essence of things.

Theatre Pro Rata's modest but glorious production of "Metamorphoses," which opened last weekend at St. Paul's Loading Dock Theater, captures the playfulness and ruthlessness of the iconic Roman poet/storyteller.

Zimmerman's Tony-nominated script, based on David Slavitt's translation from Ovid, includes only a few of the tales found in the original, but the ones she dramatizes beam in bewitchingly on greed, obsession and love.

As directed by Carin Bratlie, what in lesser hands could have been disjointedly eclectic, is seamless. Like water itself, her marvelous actors flow naturally into multiple roles and moods. There's a vivid sense that deities steer human circumstances, aided by costumes (by Erinn Huntley) that often hint humorously at present day.

An example is when Zach Curtis as Vertumnus dons women's garb to scare and seduce Pomona (Heather Stone). That seduction unfolds with an incest tale enacted with unsettling honesty by James Lekvin and Jen Rand. Another chiller is played out by Noe Tallen and Keith Prusak: In a ghostly sequence involving a shipwreck they are transformed into birds. Comedic wit rules when Stone plays therapist to Daniel Joeck's pampered Phaeton as he floats elegantly on a rubber raft poolside.

In some of his best work ever, Curtis finds monumental irony in King Midas. He calls "the inner life" useless and identifies so totally with wealth that his touch turns his daughter to gold.

One haunting image has Curtis' Orpheus leading Julie Ann Nevill's Eurydice from Hades. If he turns to look at her, then she must go back for eternity. In balletic style, Joeck carries her back as she gently cries farewell to Orpheus. This moment is repeated several times to wrenching effect.

This also underscores the artful movement coaching of Erik Hoover in unison with the sublime interplay of Stephanie Drinkard's lighting and Jenna Lory's scenic design.

John Townsend is a Minneapolis writer.