Once again McCarter Theatre boldly goes where few theatres of its rank and stature dare to. Their first offering in their new season is Mary Zimmerman's version The Odyssey, by Homer. Ms. Zimmerman has written the new adaptation from Robert Fitzgerald's translation and has also directed it. Visually quite stunning with a simple open set design and fun eclectic costumes, there is much to praise in this innovative production. However, the piece runs a whopping three hours and twenty minutes and could use a good trim.
The first ten to fifteen minutes seems like useless exposition, for the play doesn't come alive until Odysseus appears. (In all fairness it may not have been 10 or 15 mminutes, but it seemed like it, and that's what matters.) After all, Odysseus is our hero and it is his story, and we the audience are eager to get on with it because it is a long tale to tell. But, Ms. Zimmerman starts us off on Mt. Olympus with Athena as our guide and narrator. Portrayed in this production as a strong, spirited, quirky goddess looking like a cross between a wood sprite and Joan of Arc by Marian Mayberry, we like her very much. Athena and Zeus discuss the fate of Odysseus and we are then transported to Ithaka where Telemachus and Penelope share more exposition. Athena ultimately abandons us, (just as we were getting attached to those tiny pigtails of hers) and we meet Odysseus. He is melancholy and longing for his homeland as he has been chained to the sexy little ocean nymph, Calypso, (poor man) for over a year. By Zeus's order (cleverly sent by bicycle messenger), he is freed from his imprisonment and Calypso reluctantly unties the long rope that links him to her. Odysseus then begins to build a raft to sail back home to Ithaka on. Odysseus now becomes our narrator and our guide as the incredible story of his journey begins. We watch him outwit the gigantic Cyclops (craftily done with shadow play), survive a trip to the underworld, (a massive slide show) endure his seven year dalliance with the sensual Circe (how the gods do torture the boy), escape the whirlpool, Caribdus and perservere the songs of the deadly sirens.
There are some wonderfully ingenious devices used to tell this ancient story in a new way. One of the wittiest moments in the show is the "siren's song" which consists of seven women dressed entirely in red male fantasy outfitsa Girl Scout, a nurse, a bride, a nun, a whore, a school girl, a motherwho then chant the words that men cannot resist hearing. Phrases like, "You are so important" "It is so big" "Don't bother, I'll get it." Another visually effective device is the use of sand bags. On his return to Ithaka, when Odysseus slays the suitors that have persecuted his wife for years, he slits open a sand bag which hangs over each man's head. The actors writhe in the falling grains of sand as if being engulfed by supernatural forces. There are also many choreographic moments such as the dance of the suitors and the dance of the Phaecians (the happy island people on whose shores Odysseus washes up) which make this a colorful and entertaining retelling.
From the abandonment of Athena to the end of the piece, the weight of the play falls on the very large, very capable shoulders of Christopher Donahue as Odysseus. A tall, strapping man, we have no trouble believing that he is the only one who can string his bow and shoot an arrow through the holes of twelve axe-heads. And as an able actor, he deftly moves from objective storyteller to impassioned pilgrim making his arduous journey home. The company of actors must be commended for their versatility and sense of play-which has obviously been encouraged by this director. Too numerous to mention the entire company, let a few suffice: Felicity Jones as the faithful, passionate, Penelope; Louise Lamson as the domineering Circe, Anjali Bhimani as the nubile Calypso, Mario Campanaro as the snotty Hermes, and Dexter Zolicoffer as the fatherly Alcinous.
"The Odyssey" in its entirety is a long story to tell. Perhaps this piece should have been serialized into separate evenings of theatre to make it more audience friendlyor simply had a lot of the fat trimmed from it. There were many dance interludes and movement sections that could have been easily eliminated. In any event, there is much that is worthy in this intriguing, inventive, retelling of a story as old as time itself.
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