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This review by Nicole Plett was prepared for the September 20,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Odyssey’

Also see www.princetoninfo.com/200009/00913p08.html

They say that ancient storytellers plied their craft

in caves, enlivening the moment with great animated shadows thrown

by firelight onto rock walls. Now contemporary dramatist Mary

Zimmerman

is returning us to this storyteller’s world, rekindling the

3,000-year-old

tale of the Greek warrior Odysseus with the help of awesome shadows

and fake thunderclaps. Enchanting its audience with dramatic

intensity,

visual delights, and broad comic strokes, Zimmerman’s

"Odyssey,"

plays at McCarter Theater to Sunday, October 1.

"The Odyssey" opens with the entrance of a young girl in

pigtails,

carrying a chair, who seats herself at the center of the huge empty

stage, and begins reading an old musty edition of the book. As she

struggles with the famous opening words — "Sing in me,

Muse"

— the Muse herself creeps in and overpowers her and covers her

eyes, throwing her back to the poem’s oral origins. In the Muse’s

brutal grip, the girl is pressed to fulfill the poem’s promise to

"tell us in our time" of the courageous warrior’s 20-year

journey home from Troy. She transforms herself before our eyes, with

gold breastplate and red skirt, into the goddess Athena herself —

pigtails intact.

Zimmerman’s vivid and decidedly low-tech storytelling is accomplished

with minimal, evocative, costumes, sets, and props, and the flawless

functioning of a performing ensemble of 21 who move about and change

form with almost divine ease. Of this multi-talented ensemble, only

two principals — Mariann Mayberry as Athena, and Christopher

Donahue

as Odysseus — take a single role and stick with it. (Princeton’s

veteran actor Karl Light appears as Odysseus’s old father, Laertes.)

Although Zimmerman chooses to work with the well-loved 1961

translation

by Robert Fitzgerald, the spirit of her enterprise is closely allied

to that of Robert Fagles, the Princeton classicist who caught the

popular imagination in the 1990s with his vernacular translations

of both "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." Zimmerman gives

us the best of both worlds here by reciting, verbatim, some of

Fitzgerald’s

glorious lines, but keeping her storytellers honest with casual

address

to each other and to the audience. Her 21st century siren song —

age old and brand new — is memorable.

Zimmerman has a terrific knack for letting us know that this is still

our story. Her inspired characterizations — from the big, angry

god Poseidon (Paul Oakley Stovall) who stalks about dressed in a

sea-green

crinoline worthy of New Orleans’ Carnival, to the brave-hearted

swineherd

Eumaeus (Gary Wingert), who comes across like an honest home-spun

American farmer — give us folk we recognize and respect.

To fairly credit this aspect of the enterprise, one would touch on

almost every character we meet. First and most notable is the

gray-eyed

goddess Athena. I suspect I’m not the only one who has always thought

of Athena as tall, shapely, and haughty — Zeus’s

"daughter"

in name only. Yet Zimmerman, with a tour-de-force contribution from

actor Mariann Mayberry, gives us an Athena who is both goddess and

girl, warrior and peacemaker, nurturer and taskmaster. Mayberry’s

pugnacious pigtailed performance is revelatory; and Athena’s odd

manner

toward Zeus — both imperious and wheedling — makes sense.

Likewise, Christopher Donahue’s performance as the dispossessed

wanderer

Odysseus whose "bottomless bag of tricks" includes a tall

tale for every occasion, is a valiant one. His strong but endearing

portrayal convinces us of an Odysseus who is hero and victim, warrior

and lover, worthy father, son, and philanderer. The humor of his

ironic

detachment was never lost on Friday night’s 1,000 alert listeners,

who repeatedly laughed aloud at his foibles.

Another major player is the voluble and generous Alcinous (Dexter

Zollicoffer), ruler of the court of the Phaiacians, where we become

part of the shipwrecked Odysseus’s listening audience. We’re also

treated to Helen of Troy (Anna Fitzwater) as a smart aristocrat with

the body of a supermodel who easily convinces us she could start a

war. And few will forget Christian Kauffmann’s characterization of

Zeus as a supercilious, Martini-sipping laissez-faire ruler, clad

here in natty nautical whites.

Equally inspired is the character of the god Hermes (Mario Campanaro),

"the wayfinder," who arrives on Calypso’s island in the form

of a jaded Manhattan bike messenger, with black winged helmet, leather

jacket, clipboard, and divine instructions to "sign here."

Set designs by Daniel Ostling are pleasing for their simplicity and

versatility. (We’re never so happy as when he places us on or near

"the wine-dark" sea.) However his dominant use of rather

ponderous

multiple oak paneled flats is most reminiscent of a library (home

of all those musty books). Costumes by Mara Blumenfeld give us maximum

effect through essentially minimal means. For both mood and unfolding

of the story’s episodes, lighting by T.J. Gerckens, and the lively

musical scores by Michael Bodeen and Willy Schwarz, contribute

strongly

to the piece.

Choreographer Kirstin Showalter Hara’s contributions to the staging

include a dance for suitors (even though this group of upstart lords

is strangely monolithic), a laundry dance for Nausica and her maids,

and a fabulous foray into the world of the lotus eaters.

With all this said — all this wealth of inspired thinking, acting,

and designing — why, then, did I come away with the sense that

this whole "Odysseus" is less than equal to the sum of its

inspired parts? Yes, this is epic storytelling on a grand scale, but

where was that ineffable moment when playwright and players grab you

by the throat? The storytelling aspect is galvanizing from the first.

Yet as the hours rolled by (three plus), and Odysseus’s episodic

adventures

are faithfully narrated and acted out before our eyes, some pivotal

dramatic transaction seemed to be missing.

Zimmerman may be motivated by the idea that Homer’s story is best

experienced as a "song on the air." But anyone who picks up

the book knows that "The Odyssey" is a song. Contrary

to the play’s initial portrayal of the girl’s tortured encounter with

the text, Homer reads like a song. So luminous, visual, and

heartrending

are these words that 460 pages were never too many. We go to Homer,

it seems to me, not to discover what happened to the hero,

but to share the glow of the author’s insight into what this

experience

means. So enjoy the play. But read the book.

— Nicole Plett

The Odyssey, McCarter Theater , 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. $29 to $42. The play runs to Sunday, October 1.


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