AURORA | The light at the end of this tunnel is dim and difficult to make out through the shifting shadows and sneaking gloom.
It’s not distance that makes the beacon seem so far away. The bright bulb is less than 8 feet down the length of this narrow corridor; in normal circumstances, its shine would be a fine guide through the darkness. But this is no vacuum. A solid wall of water separates me from the light and the ability to breathe again.
I push myself through the submerged tunnel, careful not to hit my head or scrape my arms as I hold my breath and keep my gaze fixed forward through the murky darkness. Seconds feel like hours, and when my head finally pops out of the water, I momentarily forget where I am.
It’s the laughter of the Aurora Fox theater crew that brings me back to my senses.
Aurora Fox Executive Producer Charles Packard is asking about the swim. Jen Orf, production manager for the theater’s upcoming production of “Metamorphoses,” is on hand, relieved that no rescue was needed. Brandon Case, the theater’s technical director, stands apart after watching my brief journey through the massive, aquatic set he helped build.
Any sense of accomplishment is fleeting. I suddenly realize that I’m not so special — a crew of actors will have to make this same swim dozens of times during every upcoming performance of “Metamorphoses.” The narrow tunnel I just traversed will serve as the backstage entrance from the 3,500-gallon pool set in the center of the Fox’s humble 75-seat black box theater.
The entire cast and crew of this ambitious show will have to deal with a lot of water.
“Water gives life, water takes life. Water is dangerous, water is sexy. It gets to be all of those things in this show,” Packard said about the drama by Mary Zimmerman based on ancient Greek myths. “Water will be annoying to those who are sitting in the front row,” he added, referring to the “splash zone” of seats near the front of the stage.
Packard and the rest of the Fox crew are no strangers to elaborate and challenging sets. The theater’s 2011 production of “K2” by Patrick Meyers featured an elaborate, 16-foot climbing wall, complete with fake snow and ice ledges. The budget for that set piece was about $20,000, and though the big pool of “Metamorphoses” boasts a similar price tag, it’s offered a brand new set of challenges for the cast and crew alike.
The first hurdle was construction. The plans started to come together in May, and building the pool was no easy feat. Because the theater was hosting classes and children’s productions during the summer, the crew had to first build the pool in the workshop behind the black box theater. Then they had to move the entire, 3,500-gallon setup.
“Once we drained it, we took apart the deck around it, then I cut the pool in half, brought it in and welded it back together,” Case said. “It really only took us a couple of hours to have it built back up. But this is the set that takes the most thought. There’s so much to think about.”
That was only part of the headache associated with the show’s aquatics. The bigger pain was the water itself — the unpredictable, frustrating nature of the stuff. Whether it was offering ponchos to protect the front row of the audience or dealing with unanticipated splashback, dealing with all that liquid wasn’t easy to plan for.
“You don’t know what water is going to do until it’s there,” Orf said. “An irregularity in the floor means that water is filling up outside the bathroom door. It does unexpected things, and it’s outside the realm of our experience.”
Made of box steel, metal and plywood, the pool dominates the entire front section of the theater. Heated to temperatures of more than 90 degrees and filtered through sophisticated pool equipment, the big tub will serve as the main stage for the show directed by Geoffrey Kent. As actors tackle the stories of Apollo, King Midas, Phaeton and other ancient characters, they’ll be swimming, splashing and worrying about making their exits through that narrow tunnel connected to a smaller pool behind the curtains.
“There’s no diving, but people can be pretty athletic with it,” Packard said. “There’s one moment where a guy’s sitting on an inner tube and he does a full-on jump into the water.”
The water won’t be the only flashy part of the show. Aerialists will swing over the pool for airborne acrobatics during key sequences, and the plot features all of the violence, drama and epic scale of ancient Greek myth. But it’s impossible to get away from the water as the central focus of this story about gods, mortals and creation myths that stretch back eons.
“These are the oldest stories being told by live actors with as much spectacle as Aristophanes would have imagined,” Packard said. “The water itself — is it a prop or is it a set piece or is it an actor? It’s so vital to telling each of the stories.”
Whatever it is in the show, the water hasn’t been easy for this crew more than accustomed to creating dangerous stagecraft for audiences.
“The water doesn’t want to stay where you put it,” Packard said. “It’s so much easier to light stuff on fire than it is to get stuff wet.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]
Runs from Aug. 16 through Sept. 22 at the Aurora Fox theater, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.
Tickets start at $26.
Information: 303-739-1970 or aurorafox.org.