Director Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Homer’s ancient Greek poem “The Odyssey,” which opened in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre this weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a spellbinding transformation of the written word into a hypnotic ballet of time and place.
One of the oldest epics in western tradition, “The Odyssey” is a tale of capricious gods, a king lost at sea and a wife and son set upon by rapacious lords.
Zimmerman was early entranced by Odysseus’ epic journey home after the Trojan War. Others, like the youth onstage at curtain played by Christiana Clark, are confused and frustrated by the language. It is The Muse’s (Amy Newman) magic embrace that changes the reluctant child into the goddess Athena, and from that moment, we are entranced, as well.
In moments, we are rudely drawn to Ithaca as the lords, led by Danforth Comins cast as Antinous, invade the stage, massive and malevolent, their bare chests surrounded by wire frames that cage their hearts.
Christiana Clark as the goddess Pallas Athena and Christopher Donahue as Odysseus are standout leads. Clark is magnificent, powerful in body, crafty in wisdom and clever in guidance. Clark captures the hearts and trust of the audience as Athena appears and disappears, gaining concessions from Zeus and shepherding Odysseus on his journey.
Donahue's is not an easy role, and “The Odyssey” is a very long play. But this production serves as a marvelous vehicle for Donahue’s talent, stamina and range. At turns, he rages, despairs and ultimately triumphs. He is hoary, bedraggled and drowned, or noble, commanding and in the prime of his life. He shifts time, place and even identity, grieving at the loss of his men, longing for his home, determined to reclaim his home. Odysseus’ journey is not straightforward by any means, and in his performance, Donahue explores the souls of the ancient mariners and the unknown seas of the early mapmakers, beset by winds, spells, behemoths and horrors.
In light of the larger story of the epic journey, the relationships between mother and son, husband and wife, and father and son may seem secondary, but in this production, they are central to the tale. Penelope (Kate Hurster) does not forget her husband and will not think of him dead — only as lost and delayed. Athena helps Telemachus (Benjamin Bonenfant) grow to manhood and protect his heritage. As much as the fig trees, olives and vines, Odysseus’ family is the force that drives him home to Ithaca.
The artistic and technical aspects of this OSF production are flawless. Absence defines substance and causes the mind to invent and imagine. The set is empty save sheer fabric drapes that suggest the wind and waves, the sky above, rooms or hidden spaces. All three of the Elizabethan’s balconies are used throughout the play and while some gods move between earth and sky, Zeus (Daniel T. Parker in white suit with martini), always holds court from the highest position.
A dozen chairs line up to form a ship or a courtyard, and staves are alternately weapons, fencing, oars, and spars. Costume distinguishes god or otherworldly creatures from man, and those of men are muted, white or cream, gray or black.
Poseidon’s flowing green scales, the manic poppy-filled Land of the Lotus Eaters, and The Sirens’ mind-blinding, chanting red fantasy are brilliant against the dark.
Sound and movement are dream-like, enthralling, and the simplest of actions and tone become significant. Sound, like other aspects of the production, is spare, focusing the audience’s attention on the narrative. Drums signal the lords’ impending violence, a single violin keens loss or love, two sticks herald a sacrifice, bongos bring laughter and light. Then the sounds stop, and the tale proceeds.
While Odysseus recounts his journey to the Phaecians, or when the story becomes central to the stage, movement slows, becomes deliberate and controlled and balletic. Calypso’s repeated enticement of Odysseus is one of the most beautiful segments of “The Odyssey.” Each seduction is another physical expression of Calypso’s yearning, and Amy Newman curls her body about, over, under and even (it seems) through Odysseus’. At these times, the stage becomes unreal, otherworldly.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2017 season is not fully performed, but “The Odyssey” is certainly one of this year’s most exceptional performances. Every aspect of the show is beautiful and mesmerizing. “The Odyssey” will remind you of when you were required to read Homer and James Joyce, and you’ll wonder how you could possibly have missed The Muse at your shoulder. After you see “The Odyssey,” read them again, this time try reading out loud to enjoy the words and recall this OSF performance.
“The Odyssey” continues in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre through Oct. 14, with a sign-interpreted production July 22. The performance runs about three hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer in Ashland, Oregon and can be reached at email@example.com