It is easy to forget that Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” — now regarded as one of the foundational works of all Western literature — was once the popular entertainment of its day, recited to crowds by performers known as rhapsodes, who would travel from town to town. It is both a love story and a thrilling adventure story, and is sometimes very funny.
“Odyssey ” — a new theatrical adaptation with an all-female cast that was presented by the New York-based The Acting Company at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, Nov. 9, as part of the Peak Performances series — succeeds on many levels. But perhaps the most important way that it stays true to the original work is that it, too, is a wild ride: a lively, engrossing work to experience, with lots of surprising twists and imaginative staging, and quite a bit of music. It lasts an hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission — obviously, it doesn’t cover everything that happened in the original “Odyssey” — and the time goes by very quickly.
But this “Odyssey” has gravity, too. Lisa Peterson, who did the adaptation and directed this production, sets it in the present, in a relocation camp for refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. (She is working from Emily Wilson’s 2018 translation — the first English translation of the work by a woman.) Like Odysseus, these characters — who act out the ancient tale to pass the time, before getting caught up in its melodrama — are journeyers by circumstance, not by choice. And they have our sympathy from the moment the play starts.
They have left their respective homes in Tunisia, Albania, Syria and Rwanda, but where they will end up, and when they will be able to get there, is far from certain. Anoud (Layla Khoshnoudi), from Tunisia, is a devotee of “The Odyssey” and has a dog-eared copy of it. She enthusiastically enlists the others in a group reading of it.
“What else are you gonna do?” she asks. “Sit in your tent all night, listen to the generator, and try not to freeze to death?”
And so the others join her. There are no other people around, but they are interrupted, occasionally, by staticky, squawked, barely decipherable messages that come through the camp’s loudspeaker.
Only Anoud feels comfortable with the reading at first. The others sometimes stumble over lines and struggle with the pronunciations of these strange names. They all agree to say “O” instead of using the full name, Odysseus.
But as they read, their deliveries becomes more confident, and their presentations more theatrical. They start not just saying the words but acting as the poem’s rich cast of characters, including the one-eyed Cyclops, the enchantress Circe, the wind god Aeolus, the prophet Tiresias, and so one. And they get totally caught up in it, exulting in the fearlessness and resourcefulness of Odysseus, the fearsomeness of the monsters, the raw power of the gods.
Soon, Peterson has them stop reading from the book altogether. They just act out the story, smoothly and energetically. They use makeshift costumes and turn whatever is lying around into props. This isn’t a reading anymore. It’s a play — or, to be more precise, a play-within-a-play — and they are fully committed to it.
Still, the play-within-a-play is frequently interrupted, as the four women break character to discuss the story. When Anoud reads about Odysseus wanting to leave the nymph Calypso’s island after spending seven years there, for instance, the others can’t believe it.
“Are you kidding? He’s tired of her?” says Hana (Anya Whelan-Smith).
“She’s a beautiful goddess,” says Béa (Sophie Zmorrod).
“He’s been sleeping with Calypso for years, cheating on his wife,” says Zee (Zamo Mlengana). “Now he’s complaining!”
Later, Hana questions why so many of the monsters in the story are female. Then they debate whether that’s a bad thing. After all, it’s kind of cool that Circe is such a “badass.”
The four also butt heads with each other at times: Anoud tends to be bossy, and assumes it’s OK to tell everyone which parts to play, and lecture them on what it all means. Odysseus “is arrogant,” she tells them. “He’s just a human, but he thinks he can beat the gods. He feels invincible.”
Anoud’s own arrogance doesn’t go over well, especially with Zee — who, as memorably played by Mlengana, is a headstrong force of nature. Anoud gracefully accepts less of a leadership role in the play-within-a-play, and it becomes a more collaborative work. Even Hana, the most tentative reader/actor in the early scenes, blossoms into a scene-stealer.
But arguably, the most important part of this “Odyssey’ is what happens when they venture furthest from Homer. When not reading/acting, the four tell stories about their own lives that range from sad to horrific, and we learn a bit about how they got to the camp, and where they hope to go after they are able to leave.
Odysseus, of course, eventually returns home, and his story comes to a satisfying conclusion. But what about Anoud and Zee and Hana and Béa?
Their own odysseys are just beginning. Their monsters — making decisions about their lives from a distance, and for unknowable reasons — can’t be fought directly. The best they can hope for is to find some temporary joy, and sisterhood, in this moment, and then move on, to some place where a better life may be possible.
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