Fairy tales, myths and legends have long been staples of children's literature and theater, offering a heady blend of adventure, fantasy and morality. What child has not identified, at one time or another, with Cinderella's pre-Prince Charming predicament, Robin Hood's economic logic or Hercules' muscular exploits?

Recognizing the potency of these forms, Dancers of the Third Age is currently entertaining a host of area second- through sixth-graders (plus any adults smart enough to join them) with its production of "The Odyssey." Twice daily, five days a week through Nov. 30 in the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre, Homer's classic tale of endurance, heroism, love and war is played out in a thoroughly new and unexpected way.

Unexpected -- for those who have not yet experienced this local troupe's work -- because one rarely sees senior citizens performing modern dance and mime, let alone portraying warriors, nymphs and monsters. One of the Dance Exchange's companies, Dancers of the Third Age -- whose oldest member is 88 -- has performed more than 100 shows over the last decade at schools, art galleries, senior citizen residences, on television, and, this past summer, in Sweden. Some members have professional dance backgrounds; others joined the troupe as a way to revive flagging spirits and bodies. Watching them in action, one begins merrily tossing stereotypes aside -- and musing over the restorative powers of movement.

"Ulysses was the king of a Greek city called Ithaca. He was a strong and clever and happy young man with a wife named Penelope and a newborn son."

It is a rainy Tuesday just prior to the Smithsonian run, and company director Don Zuckerman has just begun another rehearsal of his "Odyssey." As he intones the opening lines, Cast No. 1 (due to the daunting performance schedule, the troupe has divided into two alternating casts) provides the movement equivalent. Vanetta Metoyer, a no-nonsense woman in a hairnet and cream-colored toga, plays Ulysses. She flexes her arms, then gazes dreamily at jolly, gray-haired Jo Fife, who, as Penelope, returns the gaze as she rocks an imaginary baby.

"But Ulysses and many Greek soldiers had to leave their homes and families and sail to the city of Troy, where a beautiful Greek woman named Helen was being held captive," continues Zuckerman, as a quartet of spry warriors battle it out with long sticks. "After nine years of fighting, the Greeks finally won . . . All the soldiers returned home except Ulysses and his men, whose ships were blown off course by a storm."

Now the adventure begins in earnest. Ulysses first encounters the lotus-eaters -- Jess Rea and Louise Haskin, two very thin women who move very much like the professional dancers they once were -- who pick invisible flowers from the air, devour them, cavort with the soldiers and summon fire.

Then the Cyclops -- he of the single, enormous eye and bad temper -- comes galumphing forth. Fife plays this character as well, hamming it up, heaving her rotund little body forward as she shouts: "Who's gonna be for supper tonight?"

"Jo, one of those dummies is going to be geared up so you can snap its lower leg off," explains Zuckerman, referring to two cloth figures. She snatches up the victims, but not quite violently enough for the director's taste.

"Smash those dummies down!" he instructs. "Because in the book, there are brains and blood all over the place!" She complies with relish.

After the Cyclops has been dispensed with and the sirens have been outwitted, it's time for Ulysses' encounter with the seductress Calypso. In this episode, Zuckerman plays Ulysses, and Rea Calypso, and the duet they dance is a thing of great beauty and yearning. She embraces him, whereupon he swoops her up like a leaf and carries her on his back. The fact that this is a 31-year-old man partnering a 68-year-old woman adds immeasurably to the interaction.

After what seems an eternity, Ulysses (Metoyer again) returns home disguised as a beggar, only to discover that his wife is being courted by competing suitors. He rips off his mask.

"You're terrified!" Zuckerman tells the suitors. One young and two elderly dancers shiver and shudder in response. Ulysses mercilessly dispatches his rivals with a sword.

"Writhe in agony!" shouts the director. "Do a contraction!" The suitors tumble to the floor like dying cowboys.

"Boy, are we gonna scare those poor kids!" roars Fife, clutching her sides.

After Ulysses and Penelope enjoy a tearful reunion, the Dancers of the Third Age fold up their togas, hike up their stretch pants and break for lunch.

The Odyssey, performed by Dancers of the Third Age, is open to the public. For information on performance times and ticket prices call 357-1500.