Of Tempests and Tempters

Homer's Odyssey is a grim tale of extreme hardship and grief, with a steadily increasing body count. Hilarious, right? In fact, when watching this new adaptation by writer and director Kate Marks, you'll be surprised to find yourself laughing. In Odyssey, produced by the Looking Glass Theater, she tackles the classic with a modern eye, a colloquial tongue, and a comic touch. Yet in treating an epic so lightly, Marks often reduces the original poem to a childish level that is more irritatingly goofy than clever. Still, thanks to her crisp extraction of the text's potentially humorous themes and astoundingly imaginative choreography, these missteps—like those of its title character—are more like unfortunate hiccups in a play that turns out to be an entertaining interpretation and a visual stunner.

Marks limits her adaptation to The Odyssey's most action-packed parts, Books V-XII. Since these sections are told mainly in Odysseus's words, they lack the narrator's hero worship, which fits the play's purpose well by presenting Odysseus as a flawed leader. We see a captain who gets lost, can't give a good pep talk, and manages to always make the wrong decision. Andrew Zimmerman gives Odysseus real depth, offering a solidly dramatic performance in a crowd of comic caricatures. With a gradually weakening posture and an increasingly weary expression, he evolves from a cocky fame junkie to a (literally) washed-up man who at last recognizes his faults.

His severity provides great fodder for the supporting cast. When Odysseus says, "I'm flawed," as if considering a completely foreign concept, one of his few remaining men sarcastically responds, "What a revelation!" Whether they're exploring an island or plotting mutiny, the Greek soldiers' frustration and dumb-jock sensibility make them the perfect screwball companions.

Although the troops blame their captain, the gods aren't making things easy either. After Odysseus allows his men to rape the prophet Cassandra (a wonderfully versatile Libya Pugh, who plays several parts, including Odysseus's wife and one-half of the man-woman Tiresias), Athena (Elena Chang) swears retribution and calls on Poseidon. Nevertheless, she helps the mortal through his trials. In voice and movement, Chang shows smooth restraint as a forgiving god. With her fluid athleticism and Marks's creative blocking, Athena shape-shifts from god to stag to Odysseus's wife.

If there's a fine line between parody and misguided caricature, Marc Santa Maria's Poseidon and Jamie Lea Thompson's Circe walk it carefully. Santa Maria's goggle-clad sea god is a bully with a penchant for wrestling-match taunting. While this shtick could grow thin, his excited buoyancy turns Poseidon's insults into sidesplitting smack-downs.

Circe, a witch, torments Odysseus's men by turning them into pigs. As a company that aims to "explore a female vision," it makes sense that Looking Glass's production makes Circe into a seductress-cum-feminist avenger. Her character initially comes on a little strong with the "men are swine" argument, but Thompson's transitions from sultry slinking to screechy indignation are both terrifying and amusing.

Other characters don't achieve this balance as successfully. Calypso (Sarah Petersiel), a nymph who falls in love with Odysseus, is portrayed as a petulant flower child, while Polyphemus (Anthony Wills Jr.), the Cyclops, is portrayed as, well, a petulant mutant child. Their performances and the script make these characters excessively youthful (Calypso sings loopy melodies, Cyclops speaks in baby talk), and here the play loses itself in overly goofy jokes and gestures. Since both actors show promise in their other parts, it would be nice to see them give these characters more dimensions.

The play's overuse of cultural anachronisms is similarly hit and miss. A large part of the epic tradition is capturing a culture, and Marks's use of contemporary and historical references is fitting. When she hits the mark, it breathes modern air into the classic, such as when the soldiers try to remember why they sacked Troy and one of them proposes "Oil ... olive oil." Unfortunately, most of these asides don't pack such a meaningful punch and come off as bland attempts to gain cheap laughs.

Most of the bumps in the play's dialogue are smoothed out by its graceful choreography. With a black-box theater and a bare-bones set (oil barrels as masts, a second tier, a color-changing curtain), the nimble actors serve as scenery, props, and special effects. Marks's blocking (there was no choreographer) for depicting the sea is simply breathtaking. Clad in whirling blue skirts and tight tank tops, the actors craft several raging storms.

Their most delightful creation is the tide arriving on Calypso's shore. Rushing downstage in two rows, the first line of actors drops lightly into the arms of those behind, leaving a billowing blue skirt and a slight breeze in their wake. Repeated several times, the dance is a beautifully sensual device to show the passage of time.

Significantly, Marks cuts her version short. We don't see Odysseus find his way home. But with fabulous images like these, it's difficult to care if he ever will.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post