Tuesday, July 4, 2017

"The Odyssey": Day 2, Play 3, TheatreEddy's at OSF Ashland 2017

The Odyssey
Homer, Adapted by Mary Zimmerman from the Translation by Robert Fitzgerald

Anyone who read in a high school Latin class the Roman version of Homer’s The Odyssey may remember the weeks of translating that it took to get through the 12,000+ lines.  There are moments during the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s version of Mary Zimmerman’s The Odyssey when it begins to seem that the three hour, twenty minute journey home for Odysseus may once again take that long.  The epic that has endured thousands of years of retelling in poems, novels, movies, and television becomes the object of this theatrical adaptation by Ms. Zimmerman (based on the translation by Robert Fitzgerald).  The treatment in OSF’s outdoor Elizabethan Theatre is at times certainly grand and epic in scale and presentation; but at other times the treatment is far on the other side of the scale to become blatantly cartoonish — an effect that is inconsistent in successfully conveying the classic.

The playwright herself directs this latest production of the seventeen-year-old play, and she opens the story with a twenty-something student who is struggling to read Homer’s poem while attempting to stay awake (which maybe should have given the audience some clue of what is to come for them).  The young woman does fall asleep and then comes back to life as the Greek goddess Athena, a protector of our hero, Odysseus, who has been trapped for years as a love object of the goddess Calypso following his stint in the Trojan War.  Christina Clark is one of the highlights of the evening as she becomes a steady presence in the story’s telling, appearing in a number of disguises to help guide Odysseus home safely while also allowing him plenty of free-will room to make a number of his own good and bad decisions.  Ms. Clark’s no-nonsense approach to her Athena as well as her clever, but never-overdone transformations into a number of alternative characters that Odysseus meets along the way work well to balance some of the more over-the-top, often bizarre scenes she and the wanderer will come across as he makes his long, harried venture to his native land, Ithaka.  

Once Athena convinces her father Zeus (an autocratic-looking god in white with martini in one hand and cigarette in the other, played with just the right amount of snobbery by Daniel T. Parker) to instruct Calypso to release Odysseus, the seemingly never-ending trip begins.  Early on, Odysseus upsets Poseidon (a delicious Danforth Comins in fantastical green skirt), and the former warrior’s troubles greatly multiply as the god’s sea domain time and again does not cooperate with Odysseus and his sailors.  

Where Ms. Zimmerman’s script partly falls short is in an insistence in being overly thorough in how many stops along the way she includes, to the point that it is difficult not to roll one’s eyes when yet another delay is encountered by Odysseus and another set of either demons and/or weird, wicked  inhabitants greet the hero on a new shore.  What also sometimes gets a bit tiring is that the effects are too often so blatantly bizarre and wacky (like three electric fans as the persistent wind on the Isle of Aeolea) that the richness of the epic gets entirely lost as the too-many scenes of lands and islands begin to compete which can be more outlandish than the last.  Adding to the woes of the script is the adapter’s particular choice of modern, jargon-filled language that too often loses the more rich lines and flow of Homer’s original classic.

Where Ms. Zimmerman’s treatment absolutely works is in the movement and choreography employed (some of which is designed by Kirsten Hara).  There is ominous beauty in the coordinated, dance-like movements of the evil, greedy suitors as they make their daily approaches to woo Odysseus’s faithful wife, Penelope (abandoned now for some twenty years).  Sailors trap a forbidden lamb on the island of Thrinakia in an intricate construction of a maze where their moves with long poles are so well in synch as we watch apprehensively, knowing they are creating their own death bed.  (The effect, however, is almost negated by a baa-ing lamb being played in a manner not unlike that seen in a grade-school production.) When on the sea, sailors glide majestically through calm and stormy waters with their long oars in mesmerizing mimes, creating great ships with a few simple chairs and a large, silk curtain (designed by Daniel Ostling in true Mary Zimmerman style of a stage minimal of properties).  A final assault on the invading suitors of Penelope is accomplished in yet another manner with full Zimmerman touch as their ends on earth occur in a dance of death where they are buried from sands descending from heaven in a scene quite jaw-dropping and electric in its effect.

The costume choices of Mara Blumenfeld are often wild and whimsical, but sometimes they too begin to become so much the focus that the lines of the narrative take a back seat.  Inhabitants of the Land of Lotus in lampooned outfits of the red and gold flowers; a sextet of Sirens all in red as nun, nurse, bride, and more; a King of Aeolea with plastic, yellow molds of blown hair and tie — All are somewhat funny, but each helps make the epic nature of Homer’s story less fierce and more farce than seems to fit the narrative’s intent.

Along with Athena, a steadying, stalwart force in this production is Odysseus himself.  Surrounded often by characters just short of being ridiculous in their effects (like a three-story-tall, shadow puppet Cyclops eating wriggling men — none of which looks at all real but only silly), Christopher Donahue remains believable in his trembling fear, his steadfast determination, and his increasingly confident courage.  His emotional displays are more often than not moving and palpable.  Mr. Donahoe’s Odysseus is in the end a hero worthy of this epic poem of the ages.

The fact that there is humor employed by the playwright/director is totally justified, in much the same way the great Bard himself uses comic relief in the midst of his great tragedies.  Moses Villarama’s bumpy entrance as a Western Union deliverer of a telegram message from the Mount Olympus (in the form of a winged Hermes on bicycle) is a minute’s worth of wonderful humor.  Calypso’s athletic and persuasive seduction of Odysseus (as played by Amy Newman) is terrific.  If Ms. Zimmerman perhaps were just more efficient and less drawn out in some of the other comic interventions, then the overall effect would have been to retain more of the epic nature, to have shortened the play to a more manageable length, and to reduce the sense of repetitiveness that this version of The Odyssey too often has.

Rating: 2.5 E

Photo by Jenny Graham

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