Corrections or additions?
This review by Nicole Plett was prepared for the September 20,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `The Odyssey’
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
is returning us to this storyteller’s world, rekindling the
tale of the Greek warrior Odysseus with the help of awesome shadows
and fake thunderclaps. Enchanting its audience with dramatic
visual delights, and broad comic strokes, Zimmerman’s
plays at McCarter Theater to Sunday, October 1.
"The Odyssey" opens with the entrance of a young girl in
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,
— 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 —
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
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
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
glorious lines, but keeping her storytellers honest with casual
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
crinoline worthy of New Orleans’ Carnival, to the brave-hearted
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
goddess Athena. I suspect I’m not the only one who has always thought
of Athena as tall, shapely, and haughty — Zeus’s
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
toward Zeus — both imperious and wheedling — makes sense.
Likewise, Christopher Donahue’s performance as the dispossessed
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
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
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
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
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
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
means. So enjoy the play. But read the book.
— Nicole Plett
609-258-2787. $29 to $42. The play runs to Sunday, October 1.
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