nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 4, 2009
Homer didn't write down the Odyssey but rather told it; so the appearance of this work as a theatre text is utterly natural. Handcart Ensemble, one of New York's most invaluable though less-well-known treasures, has brought a wonderful new translation of this epic tale to the stage, in a story-theatre-style presentation that is thrilling and engaging and moving. This Homer's Odyssey is a treat for all who appreciate the marvels that well-chosen words and simple stagecraft can accomplish.
These particular words are by British poet Simon Armitage, who makes the 2500-year-old text accessible and contemporary and glorious. It's the kind of poetry that's meant to be spoken and heard, full of surprising turns of phrase and imagery and studded with unexpected passages that bring the piece entirely up to date. When Odysseus and his men kill the Cyclops, for example, the description turns starkly medical, referencing the cornea and the optic nerve in a way that's at once gripping and jolting. Armitage ingeniously shapes the tale into a narrative mostly told by Odysseus himself, in flashbacks. But he employs a framing device that's even more clever, with Zeus and Athena watching Odysseus's travails through breaks in the clouds from Mount Olympus. And though the complicated plot is faithful to the original in its twists and turns, Armitage adds a twist of his own at the end that puts the entire enterprise into sharp perspective. This tale of the brave and sometimes vain exploits of this archetypal mortal hero reminds us that humankind does not exist in a void on this planet—the elements and the unknowable forces that the Greeks called gods and that some modern people call God and others call quanta are forever entangled with our destiny.
How do you tell a story this big on an indie theater budget? Director J. Scott Reynolds relies, as Homer must have, on the audience's imagination, with the happy result that this play is as much odyssey for us as it is for the actors and the characters they play. 11 actors take all the roles in the piece, mortals and gods, letting Armitage's evocative language conjure most of the scenery and locations and other stuff in our mind's eye. A set of moveable wooden platforms, a large white sheet, and some huge wooden staffs serve as the only actual set pieces, and they are combined and recombined inventively to become various sailing vessels, the big rock on Calypso's island, Cyclops's cave, Circe's dinner table, the marital bed of Odysseus and Penelope, and so on. Tjana Bjelajac is responsible for the set design; with lighting designer David Kniep and puppetry designer Marta Mozelle MacRostie she provides a spare, simple, elegant world for the story. Costumes, by Candida Nichols, are evocative of the period and functional. Music (composed by Nathan Bowen and directed by Matthew Herrick) is an invaluable aspect of the ambience as well.
David D'Agostini is a masterful presence as Odysseus. Onstage for almost the entire production, his energy and mellifluous voice never seem to flag as he both narrates and enacts the amazing adventures that cover ten years in his character's life. All of the other actors take multiple roles, and do so with skill and variety. The other key roles belong to Jane Petjersen (who plays Athena and others) and John Michalski (Zeus and others)—these two bring the gods to life with charm and delightful informality.
The play is long—nearly three hours with a single intermission—but it never feels laggard; there's a lot of tale to tell here. I was impressed that the actors seemed to get a second wind as the Odyssey reached its final leg, with the return of Odysseus to his native land of Ithaca. Some of the most exciting parts of the show—including a terrific climactic battle sequence choreographed by J. Allen Suddeth—come near the end and bring the production to a rousing conclusion.
I loved Homer's Odyssey: it's funny and thoughtful and scary and thrilling—as dizzying a roller-coaster ride as the hottest new summer action flick, plus way more thoughtful. There's a reason why this story has endured for so many centuries. Kudos to Armitage and Reynolds and their collaborators for delivering it so incisively to yet another generation of auditors.