Brian Sidney Bembridge was fresh out of college in North Carolina and a recent arrival in Chicago when he caught Lookingglass Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses.” Seeing the play was eye-opening, and not just because of its expressive retelling of myths from Ovid’s classic poem: The show takes place in a massive pool of water.
“It blew my mind as to what theater could be,” Bembridge remembers. “They were not a huge theater company at that time, and to see them put this pool of water on the stage and sink into it and fight in it and dance in it was really moving.”
Seventeen years later, Bembridge is a member of Lookingglass, and the set designer for Arden Theatre Company’s production of “Metamorphoses.” He’s working under the direction of Doug Hara, who was a classmate of Zimmerman’s at Northwestern University and acted in the original, as well as later Broadway and regional productions of the Tony-winning play. He and Bembridge worked hard to reinvent the look of the piece around the 2,600-gallon pool at its center.
Their approach, as Bembridge describes it, was “elemental” — water obviously being taken care of, but adding suggestions of earth, air and fire. The designer wanted to represent modernity within the ancient, echoing the approach that Zimmerman takes in her text.
There’s also a subtle wink for local audiences in an onstage doorway that mimics one Bembridge found while roaming the city’s neighborhoods. “I went to South Philly and Center City and Northern Liberties and actually found a doorway that I think is really personal to the city,” Bembridge says. “Many doors in the city have a slab of marble in front of them, which most cities don’t have, so it feels very Philadelphia to me.”
Of course, the biggest challenge that Bembridge faced was designing an enormous pool that could withstand the wear and tear of a month-long production. “No one thinks about the weight or the pressure it pushes out,” he says. “You have to filter the water, heat the water, keep the water running when the show’s not going on.
“They actually had to install extra power to run the pump and heat the water. You have to create room for heated dressing rooms just off stage. The actors’ safety is really important to us. Fortunately, Lookingglass produced a ‘Pool Bible,’ so we knew that we were on the right path.”
"Metamorphoses" is at the Arden (40 N. Second St.) through Nov. 1. Tickets are $36-$50 at 215-922-1122 or Ardentheatre.org.