Homer Invasion

14. November, 2010 Theater No comments

For some reason The Odyssey has been getting a lot of theatrical attention around the Bay Area this year. This summer Stanford Summer Theater performed a new piece called The Wanderings of Odysseus. In December Jon Tracy will follow up his Iliad adaptation for Shotgun Players, The Salt Plays 1: In the Wound, with his Odyssey riff Of the Earth. And right now Berkeley’s Central Works tackles the story from the vantage point of the faithful wife who waited 20 years for her husband to come home.

Jan Zvaifler in Penelope’s Odyssey. Photo by Jay Yamada.

There’s been no shortage of works to take that approach in recent years either. Margaret Atwood explored The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective in her 2005 novella The Penelopiad. Just two years ago Just Theater was performing a different Penelope-centered Odyssey play in San Francisco, Melissa James Gibson’s Current Nobody, and right now New York is being treated to Enda Walsh’s Penelope. But that’s the thing about ancient myth: There’s plenty of room for endless interpretations.

Penelope’s Odyssey is by Central Works codirector Gary Graves, who writes most of the company’s plays in collaboration with the cast and designers. It’s staged in the round in the company’s usual room at the Berkeley City Club, this time with no set to speak of, just a sculpture by Paul Germain of a three-arrowed bow over the mantel of the fireplace. The night I saw it, sound designer Gregory Scharpen’s mood music underscoring dramatic scenes and party music from carousing houseguests had to compete with the much louder music from an actual party upstairs–enough so that I have to say at least I think there was some intentional party music in the play.

Most of the play is a fairly faithful version of the events at home in Ithaka while Odysseus is away, as detailed in Homer’s Odyssey. After ten years at war with Troy, it takes Odysseus another ten years to make his way home. Convinced that Odysseus is dead, a horde of suitors comes to Ithaka to woo Penelope and won’t leave until she chooses one of them. They just stay, eating all her food, drinking her wine, carousing and plotting the death of her meddling son, while she stalls them by weaving a shroud (and then unweaving it again every night, although that part isn’t touched upon in the play). Meanwhile that son, Telemakos, travels in search of any word that his father may be alive. All this takes place in the play more or less as it did in Homer, but the play really gets interesting when it diverges sharply from the original story.

Having Odysseus’s son and heir Telemakos secretly be a daughter isn’t the part I’m thinking of. It provides an interesting extra layer of gender politics for people to talk about, but ultimately makes little difference to the course of events. It also simplifies the suitors’ bad behavior to taking advantage of women while the men are away. Telemakos is emasculated by the situation as the “man of the house,” but it’s not taken seriously because no one believes she’s a man and Penelope’s the one in charge anyway. The idea that Odysseus dreamed all his Odyssey adventures while drugged out in a cave somewhere isn’t the interesting part either, because “it was all a dream/hallucination” is a pretty well-worn modern approach to classic fantasy or mythic material.

No, the fascinating divergence happens very late in the two-hour, two-act play, when we see what happens when Odysseus finally comes home. Here again he does more or less the stuff he does in the original story–pretends to be someone else and figures out what to do with these inconsiderate houseguests–but the way Penelope reacts is totally compelling.

Up to that point, the text sounds somewhat stilted in John Patrick Moore’s slow-moving production. Matt Lai makes smarmy pleasantries, but always with an undercurrent of threat, as Antinus, the first of the suitors and the only one we see. Understandably under the circumstances, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong spends most of her time scowling as the outraged, impatient Telemakos. Unfortunately when she does lighten up it’s in lengthy stretches of rhapsodic exposition about visitations from “the grey-eyed one” (Athena to you) or her trip to Sparta (a particularly long recap that’s still confusing because there’s no sense of how long she’s been gone). Terry Lamb is exaggeratedly loopy as the chortling, half-crazed (and sometimes fully crazed) Odysseus, but he’s compelling when he tells a gruesome, rueful account of the sack and slaughter of Troy in the guise of a traveling storyteller.

Company codirector Jan Zvaifler at first is terribly reserved and courtly as Penelope, remaining pleasant but formal in a breathy voice and for some reason almost always wearing sunglasses. That armor takes a long time to break, but when it does we start to really see something. She closes act one with a strikingly powerful speech in which she finally confronts the suitors, chastening then for their outrageous behavior with righteous indignation and challenging them to prove themselves worthy men. And her encounters with Odysseus, which I won’t spoil here, pack a mean punch.

Oddly enough, this is not the first time Zvaifler has played a wife who waits 20 years for her missing husband. Just two years ago she did the same in Brian Thorstenson’s Wakefield; or Hello Sophia, about a man who decides as an experiment to see how his wife would react if he just didn’t come home one day, and winds up spying on her without revealing himself for 20 years. And it’s interesting that the real meat of Penelope’s Odyssey, the question of what happens when the long-roving husband finally returns, was the primary focus of Wakefield as well. If only more of this play were devoted to that diverging story of Penelope’s own odyssey instead of summing up the home front chapters of Homer’s Odyssey, they might really have something here.

Penelope’s Odyssey
Through November 21
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #117 of 2010, attended November 6.

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