Homeric Undone

29. December, 2010 Theater No comments

After creating a propulsive contemporary take on George Orwell’s Animal Farm for Shotgun Players’ summer show last year, this summer writer-director Jon Tracy followed it up with The Salt Plays, Part 1: In the Wound, a stunning, kinetic, poetic riff on the Trojan War that both was and wasn’t an adaptation of The Iliad. And if that wasn’t ambitious enough, Tracy followed his Iliad up this December with–what else?–his Odyssey, following his cold-blooded, business-suited strategist Odysseus on his long-delayed voyage home to his waiting wife Penelope.

Elena Wright, Charisse Loriaux, Dan Bruno, Rami Margron and Emily Rosenthal in Of the Earth. Photo by Pak Han.

Before seeing the show, I had said both in conversation and in print that seeing this summer’s show was probably no more a prerequisite to appreciating its sequel than reading The Iliad was necessary to enjoy The Odyssey, because it’s a very different kind of story.  Having actually seen The Salt Plays, Part 2: Of the Earth, that turns out not to be true.  Although the notion to do an Odyssey adaptation at Shotgun this year predated the idea for this summer’s prequel, Of the Earth is mostly devoted to tying up loose ends from In the Wound.

Most of the things that were still unclear at the end of In the Wound are explained here: what was up with the red briefcases, why goddesses kept turning into deer, and why there was no real payoff to all that business about freeing Iphigenia from some kind of netherworld.  The explanations are reasonably satisfying, but they’re delivered in naked exposition that isn’t as artful as one might hope.

In the Wound posited that the Trojan War was inflicted on the troops by the gods as a way of making Odysseus, Agamemnon and Achilles atone for sacrificing Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to the gods on the way to Troy. Somehow those three had to see the error of their ways in order for Iphigenia’s spirit to be able to rise from the limbo in which she was trapped.

Of the Earth not only explains what all that was about, but it expands the idea into an elaborate theogony in which this is exactly how all the gods became gods in the first place: Each one was originally some animal or human who was sacrificed by unwitting humans to the gods, who didn’t want any such blood sacrifices. Only once the slaughterers were set straight were the sacrificed souls free to rise and find their places in the pantheon. (Considering how much blood sacrifice there’s been to various gods over the course of history, this rather laborious second step is seemingly the only reason the heavens are not overstuffed with deities.) Apparently this is why Artemis, Aphrodite and Hera kept turning into deer in the first play–because that’s what they were in the first place.

While In the Wound featured Shotgun’s largest-ever ensemble, this time the cast is just the central family–Odysseus and the wife and son he’s trying to get back to–and five gods who take on the roles of everyone else. Clad by costumer Tina Yeaton in white jumpsuits reminiscent of the original Tron, all the gods are played by women, although it’s not clear whether that’s at all relevant to the story.

It’s a particularly interesting choice in the case of Zeus, who has traditionally been defined and driven by That Which He Cannot Keep in His Pants. Here it’s hard to say what drives Zeus; she’s calling the shots, but it’s increasingly clear that she really has no plan. As Athena says, “But your rules don’t make any sense!” She’s punishing the goddesses for letting the war drag on so long without resolution of Iphigenia, but at the same time she’s drawing out Odysseus’s penance for as long as possible. That vagueness of purpose comes out in Rami Margron’s imperious Zeus, always fuming but affecting a blasé stance with an omnipresent cigarette.

Most formidable is Anna Ishida as the wrathful Poseidon, who for some unspoken reason is even more indentured to Zeus than the other gods are. (When Zeus says everyone gets to go home at the end, Poseidon demands, “And me? And me?” “Probably not you,” Zeus says.) The water god keeps attacking Odysseus in brutal fight scenes choreographed by Dave Maier, but also clearly wants him to succeed and find his way home so that all this will be over.

The trio of goddesses from In the Wound have a whipped-dog quality in the sequel after being chastened and subjugated by Zeus. Emily Rosenthal’s Hera, who was a force to be reckoned with in the first play, now is barely keeping her head above water. Elena Wright’s always-fretful Athena is just as troubled here, except that she no longer has any control to lose, and Charisse Loriaux’s Aphrodite is too querulous to exude any of her trademark allure. Loriaux does, however, make an enthralling Circe, who’s also Aphrodite in quasi-human form. Circe stands in for Calypso and the sirens as well, because Tracy’s version has so much In the Wound spillover to deal with that it doesn’t have much room to explore the many adventures of The Odyssey.

Brendan West’s marvelous percussive score from In the Wound finds its echoes in Dan Bruno’s weary Odysseus being armed with drumsticks and a habit of drumming the ground experimentally when he lands in a new place. He also runs in place a lot and repeats simple mathematical equations to himself over and over (and over and over again) as a way of keeping himself grounded in reality.

What’s actually going on with Penelope back in Ithaca is mentioned every now and then, mostly by her son Telemachus, but Lexie Papedo’s Penelope doesn’t concern herself with any of that. (Berkeley audiences already saw that territory covered in Central Works’s recent Penelope’s Odyssey anyway.) Mostly she appears to her absent husband in visions, trailing a long string behind her that she strings all over the stage. Instead of a shroud, here she’s weaving a map of the world to look for her husband–but whenever she appears to him and he reaches out for her, she rebuffs him, saying he’s not ready. Much of the time she’s singing lovely, mournful songs, which makes a striking contrast with some of her spoken lines that are delivered like a peevish teenager.

Daniel Petzold’s Telemachus mostly recites his letters to Odysseus, which if you saw the first play you’d know he sends on paper airplanes, talking about the wonder of television, seeing Agamemnon’s homecoming on the news, and wondering whatever happened to the father who’s been gone as long as he can remember.

Nina Ball’s set has a striking, stripped-down look, with high scaffolding on either side of the stage and six institutional-looking lamps hanging from the ceiling. There’s a skein of chalk lines on the black floor, with a ramplike platform in the center. A large screen in the rear is used for large projections and looming shadows.

There’s heavy use of projections and prerecorded speech in the show. There are dreamlike sequences of Odysseus standing in the water in a business suit, sometimes visited by Nesbyth Rieman’s Iphigenia. Most of the main characters from In the Wound show up in Lloyd Vance’s video at one point or another in flashbacks and ghostly visitations.

There’s a ritualized, dreamlike quality to the play as a whole, with lots of poetic language (“I am the trick, I am the false, I am the salt,” Odysseus says, f’rinstance) and some marvelous visual imagery, such as crutch-winged goddesses and a many-headed Scylla made of gods and ceiling lamps.

The treatment of the Cyclops is awfully clever, with the gods on the ladders forming his limbs with their bodies, speaking his lines in unison, and using one of the lamps for his eye. Particularly amusing is his friendly chitchat with his prisoner while being very clear that he’s still going to eat him.

But what happens at the end of the Cyclops encounter isn’t entirely clear in this, which is a small thing, but it points to a larger thing. Tracy is taking on so much in the play’s two hours that it feels unfocused. Between the mop-up from In the Wound, the fate of absent Iphigenia, and the mechanics of the gods, the elements of The Odyssey that actually remain amid Odysseus’s drawn-out homecoming get short shrift, and we don’t get to know Odysseus or even Penelope much better than we did amid the inspired havoc of the first piece.

I’d be curious to know what people who never saw the first play made of this one, because its filled with explanations of things that I wondered about when I saw the first play but feel far less relevant to this one, as well as callbacks that seem like non sequiturs unless you know the reference. When Circe starts wailing, “And this guy, and this guy, and this guy,” it doesn’t make much sense unless you’ve witnessed Ajax’s anguished refrain in In the Wound that she’s echoing. All this makes Of the Earth feel like an interesting addendum to its predecessor, but not particularly coherent as a play in its own right. “Is it safe to say you’ve made this too complicated?” Hera asks Zeus, and it’s funny because it’s true.

The Salt Plays, Part 2: Of the Earth
Through January 30
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #124 of 2010, attended December 10.

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