nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 16, 2011
Theatre-goers who crave stimulating and challenging drama that looks unflinchingly at the most fundamental issues of life and death are in luck this week. Stephen Svoboda's remarkable play Odysseus DOA—last seen in New York at FringeNYC in 2004, under the slightly different title Odysseus Died From AIDS—is back for an all-too-brief run at Theater Row. It's deeply felt, deeply moving theatre, and I was extremely glad for the chance to see it again. (Note that this is a play I know well, for I included it in my anthology Plays and Playwrights 2005.)
Odysseus DOA tells the story of Elliot Hayes, a 30-year-old man who has been ill for ten years. While an undergraduate at Columbia, Elliot fell in love with a man named Ethan. From this brief (and first) relationship, Elliot got AIDS, and when he discovered that, he ran away from Ethan and the rest of his life, taking refuge with his loving but possibly overprotective mother. As the play opens, Mrs. Hayes has reluctantly brought Elliot for medical attention because his use of language has suddenly begun to fail. The grim diagnosis is lesions on his brain; it will not be long before Elliot loses his ability to communicate; there is no cure for his condition.
Let me complete the synopsis by quoting from myself (from the introduction to Plays and Playwrights 2005):
The play takes place in a hospital where Elliott, in the final stages of his disease, has come to die. But it really happens inside Elliot's very vivid imagination, where, in the confusion of his disintegrating mind, he has become the great legendary hero Odysseus. Svoboda creates a poetic, surreal, and wonderfully humorous world for Elliott to occupy in this majestic play.
Three of Elliot's fellow patients in the AIDS ward are morphed in Elliot's mind into Odysseus's crew, trying desperately to get home after the Trojan War but forced to fight off monsters like the Lotus Eaters and Scylla and Charybdis. All are in advanced stages of AIDS, and Elliot spends his final days in the hospital helping each of them: Maha, a 22-year-old whose mother was addicted to cocaine, whose fondest wish is to go once more to McDonald's; Nick, a straight man in deep denial about his condition, though he's already gone blind; and Adam, a one-time party boy now bloated beyond repair and unable to breathe on his own. Elliot falls in love with Adam, and helps him make peace with his mother and his imminent fate.
Another patient is Resean, a "transsexual lesbian" who is the father of a girl in foster care. Gallant and wise, Resean becomes Elliot's ally and mentor—the goddess Athena in his Odyssey-inspired view.
Svoboda, who directed the play, traces Elliot's journey home, and it is truly heroic in every sense of that word. The staging is fluid and tight, on a simple set conceived by Michiko Katayama consisting of a few chairs, a mobile hospital bed, and three stark white moving screens. Kristi McKay's costumes blend complete naturalism with occasional fanciful touches. John Czajkowski's lighting and Svoboda's sound design and visual effects contribute mightily to the play's slightly surreal, abstract ambience.
Bringing Svoboda's drama to life are a fine ensemble of ten actors. Three of them were in the original 2004 production: John Bixler as Elliot, Adam Perabo as Adam, and Maha McCain as Maha all deliver thoughtful, committed, memorable performances. Among the others, Temar Underwood is the show-stopping standout as Resean, finding the intelligence, the grace, the courage, and above all the attitude that defines this larger-than-life character. Also notable are Brett Davenport as Nick and Laura Austin as Elliot's indomitable mother (and their surprising scene together is definitely one of the highpoints of this production).
Odysseus DOA is stirring, emotional theatre with much to teach us about the strength of humanity and the power of love. It is a real privilege to be able to see it once again here in New York, and I urge you to take advantage of the opportunity to partake of its life-affirming wisdom while you can.