An Odyssey

Aug. 15th, 2017 01:00 pm
lillibet: (Default)
[personal profile] lillibet
When we first put together a schedule for the summer, it didn't look as though we'd be able to make our usual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but as the plans got rearranged and put back together it turned out there was a narrow window when Jason and I could get down to Ashland just to see Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of The Odyssey, which she was reviving herself for the festival.

For those of you keeping track at home, Mary Zimmerman is probably my favorite stage director. She created Metamorphoses, one of the most perfect theatrical experiences of my life, and I loved her White Snake, as well. I am really enamored by her talent for taking ancient, epic stories and making them personal for modern audiences. I have read her version of The Odyssey in the past and been completely mystified how it might be staged, so I was very excited to see this production.

We flew down from Seattle on Sunday afternoon and checked into the Ashland Springs Hotel, which is a lovely, classic hotel just a block from the festival theatres. After a pleasant walk through Lithia Park, complete with a wade in the stream there, we had dinner at Amuse, our favorite restaurant in town, where the standout this time was a dessert of cherries soaked in balsamic vinegar and served over vanilla ice cream and a brown sugar cracker for a marvelous combination of contrasting flavors and textures. Then we headed over to the Elizabethan Theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre built to echo Shakespeare's Globe.

That made an interesting setting for The Odyssey. While I think Zimmerman's work is better in more intimate settings, the grand scale of the three-storey stage lent itself to the levels of performance, and the wind blowing through the theatre added verisimilitude to the scenes of Odysseus ranging across the Mediterranean. The staging was very simple, with actors often sitting directly on the stage as the main character spun his tale. Many props were represented by eight-foot long bamboo poles and a set of simple, mismatched wooden chairs. The costumes were much more elaborate and involved many quick changes as the same ensemble of eighteen shifted from sailors to monsters to suitors and maidservants.

The framing character, Athena, was played by Christiana Clark and it was marvelous to see the goddess as a strong, playful black woman. Many of the ensemble were also POC, something that the OSF has been working to change over the past decade or more. We were also excited to see Howie Seago, a deaf actor whose performances we've enjoyed in several other OSF shows. He performs in sign and they use various conceits (other characters repeating his lines, or responding in a way that makes clear what his line was) to be certain the meaning is communicated. In this production he played Menelaus, with his queen and chancellor echoing his lines, and then the dead spirit of the seer Tiresias, with his lines delivered in sign and ghostly voiceover.

The main characters were all good. The actor playing Penelope has a very engaging warmth that made believing in her enduring devotion easier, while Telemachus--in addition to being a beautiful young man in the style of Orlando Bloom--really hit the boy/man point perfectly, to make us believe that he might sail to Sparta, but fear confronting an entire household of suitors on his own. Odysseus was a marvelous performer and excellent storyteller, with very open emotions, but I found myself wishing he read as somewhat younger and stronger, so that the contrast with his disguise as an old beggar, and others' descriptions of him as still a fearsome warrior rang truer.

I think the strongest moment in the entire play was the encounter with the Sirens, six women of the ensemble, each dressed in a scarlet "sexy" stereotypical fantasy figure: librarian, nun, girl scout, bride, etc. Their "song" was a chant of "Everything you do is important. Everything you say is important. Your life is more important than mine. No, honey, you stay there--I'll get it," and so on. It was one of the most modern insertions into the story and worked very well, although we were sorry that Odysseus was positioned with his back to the audience so we couldn't see his response to them.

Calypso, on the other hand, got the short straw. She was dressed in satin shortie pajamas with a large pink obi in a bow out to her elbows, with a red wig in braids tied with matching ribbons, as she served tea from fancy china. Though she has agreed to set Odysseus free and provided him with materials (the bamboo poles, which also didn't really work for me as raft-construction the way they were used) she performs partner acrobatics of clinging to him as he builds his means of escape. I really couldn't tell what she was supposed to communicate to us, except childlike whininess. Circe was much better--more powerful, more openly sexual--but played by an actor whose style I find mannered.

Unfortunately what should have been the climatic action of the show, the defeat of the suitors, was drained of its power by moving too slowly through a staging that was full of opaque symbolism. Each suitor stood beneath a sandbag suspended from the rig as his samurai-evoking bamboo "armor" was removed and the bag pierced by Athena or Telemachus to rain some kind of seed down on his head. The actors exited, leaving their armor behind. Enh. Only the moment of the seeds falling was visually powerful and by the time the sixth bag was pierced, even that felt anti-climatic.

In her director's note, Mary Zimmerman talks about the enduring metaphor of the wanderer weathering the storms of his life in order to return to his roots. This led to very touching scenes of Odysseus' reunions with his friend, his son, his dog, his nurse, his wife, and his father. But that aspect of the show failed to resonate with me on a personal level and left me feeling less emotionally invested than her works that focus more directly on love, while the staging lacked the "wow" moments that her other works have featured.

Overall I liked this show, rather than loving it. I think that if I ever decided to take on this story myself I would investigate other adaptations, or simply begin with the source text and carve my own show from it, rather than working from this script. I am very glad to have seen it, but would rank it below the three other shows I've seen her direct.

We went back to the hotel and watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones before bed. In the morning we had breakfast there and then I was able to squeeze in a massage across the street at Waterstone Spa. I always enjoy my experiences there, but this was definitely the best massage I've gotten there, and especially helped my thighs, which were still painfully tight from all the gardening on Friday.

When that was done, we piled quickly into the car and after a much-anticipated lunch at Jack-in-the-Box, hopped on our flight back to Seattle. Reunited with Alice, Steve, and Eric, we met Jason's best friend, Todd, for excellent sushi at Chiso in Fremont, and then I got to read Alice bedtime stories for the last time in a week before Jason took me back to Sea-Tac for my redeye to Boston. The flight was easy and quick--we made it in under four and a half hours, one of the fastest transcontinental flights I've ever flown--and I hadn't checked a bag, so I was able to walk out to a cab and be home just about the time we'd been scheduled to land. Jason and Alice are staying for another week, planning to go camping north of Boise over the weekend and catch the total eclipse before heading home.

It was strange to be doing all this travel and engaging in rituals of personal grief and delightful sensory experiences while violence in Charlottesville and its aftermath were taking over the news. I'm very glad to be home and able to engage more fully in the resistance to those awful events. Thanks to all those who kept me informed and in touch over the weekend.

Date: 2017-08-15 08:59 pm (UTC)
amaebi: (Default)
From: [personal profile] amaebi
Thanks for your account of the play-- I hope to see it some day.

Date: 2017-08-16 03:56 am (UTC)
sovay: (I Claudius)
From: [personal profile] sovay
Amuse, our favorite restaurant in town, where the standout this time was a dessert of cherries soaked in balsamic vinegar and served over vanilla ice cream and a brown sugar cracker for a marvelous combination of contrasting flavors and textures.

I would eat that.

In this production he played Menelaus, with his queen and chancellor echoing his lines, and then the dead spirit of the seer Tiresias, with his lines delivered in sign and ghostly voiceover.

That sounds excellent. I especially like that the Deaf actor is playing both a ghost of the underworld—where you might expect the dead to speak in ways that the living don't—but also a living person, complicated, a hero of the war, so that there's no more Othering of him than any other actor in the cast.

the Sirens, six women of the ensemble, each dressed in a scarlet "sexy" stereotypical fantasy figure: librarian, nun, girl scout, bride, etc. Their "song" was a chant of "Everything you do is important. Everything you say is important. Your life is more important than mine. No, honey, you stay there--I'll get it," and so on.

That one hundred percent does not work for me, but I happen to like both the Sirens' original song and what it says about Odysseus that it tempts him.

I'm glad you got the chance to see it!

Date: 2017-08-16 06:28 am (UTC)
sovay: (I Claudius)
From: [personal profile] sovay
It's been long enough since I've read the original that I don't recall the Sirens' song offhand, which probably helped.

They promise knowledge:

δεῦρ᾽ ἄγ᾽ ἰών, πολύαιν᾽ Ὀδυσεῦ, μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν,
νῆα κατάστησον, ἵνα νωιτέρην ὄπ ἀκούσῃς.
οὐ γάρ πώ τις τῇδε παρήλασε νηὶ μελαίνῃ,
πρίν γ᾽ ἡμέων μελίγηρυν ἀπὸ στομάτων ὄπ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γε τερψάμενος νεῖται καὶ πλείονα εἰδώς.
ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
Ἀργεῖοι Τρῶές τε θεῶν ἰότητι μόγησαν,
ἴδμεν δ᾽, ὅσσα γένηται ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ.

Come here, much-famed Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians,
stay your ship so that you may hear the voice of the two of us.
For no one yet passed this way in a black ship
before he heard the honey-sweet voice from our mouths
but he goes on delighting and knowing more.
For we know all that in broad Troy
the Argives and the Trojans endured by the will of the gods
and we know all that comes to be on the nourishing earth.


Unless you want to assume that the Sirens have a different bait for every traveler, their lure is the storyteller's: they know the truth of things. How could Odysseus, a storyteller himself, beloved by Athene for his command of βουλῇ καὶ μύθοισιν, strategy and stories, hope to resist?

Although it might also be indicative of the weaknesses of this production that it felt like a relief of sorts.

How so?

Date: 2017-08-16 06:45 pm (UTC)
daily_alice: (Default)
From: [personal profile] daily_alice
Yes, that's lovely.

I think that it's very hard to stage this without it being just one tall tale after another, and all distanced from our daily experience. One of the things I look for in a Mary Zimmerman show, especially, is some way of connecting the story on stage to my experience. This show largely lacked that and the insertion of modern gender politics was one of the few moments that I thought "yeah, I hear that."

Date: 2017-08-16 06:29 am (UTC)
sovay: (Claude Rains)
From: [personal profile] sovay
I was really pleased in those shows that Hal is the only other character who addresses him in sign, though the other characters appeared to also understand what he meant.

I like that!

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