I came to Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new production of "The Odyssey" wondering how the heck they were going to do it. How do you take a Greek epic poem from antiquity, let alone one of such massive importance to the Western canon, and make it appealing and relatable enough so that an audience peppered with school-aged children and hard-to-please Baby Boomers would walk away from the evening satisfied?
So gifted and seasoned are the acting and production professionals at OSF that, on leaving the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the end of this marvelous show, I was still unsure as to quite how they'd done it. But they have; this production of "The Odyssey" is the best thing the company has done this season, despite a dazzling slew of plays already in rep.
I am rather in awe of Mary Zimmerman; her remarkable direction coupled with her lyrical and passionate adaptation of the classic poem strikes the perfect balance between a deferential tone and a flowing contemporary timbre. There is music in her words, music that is interspersed with discreet minimalist melodies, artful lighting, and brilliant costuming, as well as a level of choreography and fight direction that is evocative and poetic in its own right.
Kirstin Hara and U. Jonathan Toppo are in top form in presenting their actors with a sort of sculptural complexity that suits the production beautifully. Scenic designer Daniel Ostling sets up a deceptively simple white scrim at center stage, with which he works miracles over the course of a nearly four-hour-long show, using the design to project shadow, cover up set changes, and to reveal myriad tableaux of increasing complexity. Mara Blumenfeld's costumes are almost perfect. The discreet brilliance of the supporting players in the show — among them such OSF luminaries as Armando Duran, Britney Simpson and others — fills out a picture that will have even the most cynical theater buff blinking back tears. This is an exquisite and powerfully rendered work, not to be missed.
Christiana Clark as Athena is an appropriately powerful and omnipresent force, and Ms. Clark continues to prove her worth as one of the best actors in the OSF universe; her natural charisma and professionalism are a boon for the company. As Odysseus, Christopher Donahue is magnificent, in a tour de force performance with chops to spare — he is humorous at the perfect moments, filled with the pain of his lost home at times, and soaked in the strength of the gods and the courage of a military man when called for. Donahue is a potent actor with superb instincts; his physicality in the role is intelligent, subtle, and will reward any patron who is sufficiently acquainted with nuance to appreciate this bravura performance.
As Muse/Calypso, Amy Newman plays the role as the sort of seductive, clingy, but sexually addictive problem lover to whom anyone who has been bound to such a creature can fully relate. The scene in which she and Odysseus part company is one of the most touching, deceptively physically strenuous, and beautifully choreographed moments in the production.
As Zeus, Daniel T. Parker lights up the stage as a martini-swilling, chain-smoking, corporeal God-baby. Parker seems just the sort of lusty libertine who might happily turn himself into a white bull to exploit some nubile maiden. Danforth Comins is outstanding as an irritable and gloomy Poseidon, the jealous and less powerful brother to Zeus. As Odysseus's son, Telemachus, Benjamin Bonenfant is an appropriately earnest youngster stuck in his father's shadow and attempting to make waves.
Moses Villarama's bicycle messenger Hermes garners a robust giggle from the audience. Another standout performance comes from Briawna Jackson as Helen of Troy; her moments stuck at center stage right on an emerald divan, where all she does is sit quietly and invoke jealousy towards the presence of the female gods to whom her beauty is not a threat, are utterly hilarious. She is pouty and petulant and a real kick in the pants.
The production is of the sort that shows OSF in her very best light, utilizing the gifts of so many brilliant artists and making use of the power of words and training over gaudy spectacle. While there is eye-candy aplenty in costuming and lighting, this show is, thankfully, devoid of the unnecessary, distracting gimmickry that might otherwise have made it cartoonish and detracted from the deeper message. Zimmerman should be lauded for her decision to keep the production at a perfect balance between the Dionysian and the Spartan. This allowed for the sinewy power of the Homeric epic to shine through. As such, "The Odyssey" is a wonderful show that does service to the audience, the actors, and the theater world as a whole.
See. It. Now.
Homer's Odyssey runs through Oct. 14 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.