SOURCE THEATER'S startling, strenuous "Persephone" is entertaining and enlightening theater about theater.

Revised and revived at the tiny (50-seat) Jarry loft, "Persephone" is a very different show from the chaotic experiment born above Herb's Florist in 1979. It's still chaotic, but has evolved into an impressionistic and very funny portrait of the art and job of acting.

Written and directed with understanding and engaging self-mockery by Source founder Bart Whiteman, the material for "Persephone" was gleaned from years of actors' workshops and rehearsals. Perhaps because it is their story, it certainly seems like fun for the Source actors, and that spirit is infectious.

In the original Greek myth, Persephone, beautiful daughter of the earth mother Demeter, is kidnapped and taken to the underworld by Hades. Starting with that tale, Source concocts a dizzyingly dense montage, stringing together 24 overlapping scenes: a theater troupe auditioning, casting and rehearsing an avant-garde presentation of "Persephone," which emerges as a travesty in the hands of a randy director and his temperamental actors; an impressionistic presentation of the myth itself; and autobiographical monologues by each of the Source actors, who reveal, a la "A Chorus Line," their beliefs about art and politics with tongue-in-cheek earnestness.

Shot through with in-jokes, mythological puns and simple lighting and sound effects that in this small space come off as nearly spectacular, the audacious "Persephone" also filters "Romeo and Juliet" through a chainsaw movie; sets the gods to gossiping and flirting at a cocktail party; and culminates in an extended and extremely clever courtroom battle over the custody of Persephone.

Whatever it all means, "Persephone" is acted with an Olympian abundance of energy by all 15 members of the ensemble, with standout turns by Dick Harrington, amusingly smug and supercilious in the dual roles of the director and Zeus; Nick Smyth, who plays Hades and a glowering neo-Method actor named Buzz; and earthily enthusiastic Charisma Starks as Helios the sun god. As there is no dressing room, the actors mingle with the crowd before the show and at intermission, a novel theatrical experience in itself.

Be prepared: "Persephone" participants sit for nearly three hours on hard wooden benches -- no one will mind if you bring your own cushion. The floor-level seats provide the best sense of enveloping involvement.

PERSEPHONE -- At The Jarry (1845 14th St. NW) through May 10.