Homer’s ancient but timeless epic poem “The Odyssey” gets a modern interpretation in the New York-based The Acting Company’s “Odyssey,” which debuted at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, California, in September, and is now on a tour that comes to the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University, Nov. 9; and the Stockton Performing Arts Center in Galloway, Nov. 10.
Lisa Peterson did the adaptation and directed this production. She based it on Emily Wilson’s acclaimed 2018 translation (the first English translation of the work by a woman) but also moved the setting to the present, in a relocation camp for refugees, and made the play’s four characters women who have left their homes in the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe.
I talked to Peterson in mid-October by phone.
Q: Was it Emily Wilson’s translation that really spurred you to do this or were you already thinking about it before?
A: I had a loose idea because I had done, with my writing partner Denis O’Hare, an adaptation of (Homer’s) “The Iliad,” as a solo for him, 15 years ago. So I always was kind of waiting for an idea. I never really had a strong instinct or an idea to bring to “The Odyssey.” I knew that it had been adapted quite a bit and very well by other people. And I thought, “Well, I’m not quite sure what my particular take on it is.”
It was sort of a coordinated moment where I was talking to the artistic director of The Acting Company at the time. His name was Ian Belknap. He was asking me, “What about ‘The Odyssey?’ ” I definitely knew about Emily Wilson’s translation that had just come out. It was, like, 2018, and it had gotten great reviews. So I said, “I’m interested in this female point of view on ‘The Odyssey.’ ” Then I read it, and it spurred me to think, “What if this was told by women, and what if they shared the role of Odysseus?” So it was kind of a combination of curiosity that’s been with me for a while, and then being inspired by Emily’s translation.
Q: Did you have any hesitation about taking on something that’s regarded as such an epic, landmark work?
A: No, I like the idea of taking on something epic and complicated and difficult. But I didn’t want to approach it unless I felt I had a point of view that made a new adaptation necessary.
Q: Of course, since you put this together, world events have underscored some of the themes. Does it feel a little different for you, now, with the world events of just this year?
A: Yes and no. I think the idea of setting the epic tale against the story of migrants in the Mediterranean now … that really came to me around the time I was thinking about doing this, mostly because I had really been paying attention, only since 2016, 2017, to what is now called the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. There were a couple of great documentary films that came out in 2016 and 2017 that were capturing what was happening. Primarily, at the time, the story was about people from Syria who were escaping that situation and then finding themselves lost at sea and in these migrant relocation camps. So it’s not that it wasn’t present. It was. And then as we were working on it — and certainly, even in the last 6 to 8 months — it’s just become clear that the problem hasn’t ended. It’s continuing and, if anything, it’s growing.
In many ways, I was really interested in thinking about what it’s like to venture out, to decide to change your home — to find a home — because, to me, the primary action of “The Odyssey,” of course, is he’s trying to get home. And these young women who are telling the story are also trying to get home, but for them home is ahead of them, not behind them, because they can’t go back to the home they left.
I like this idea of thinking about home in different temporal modes: where you’ve come from, where you are going and, also, where you are, right this minute. And I also thought it’s worthwhile in the United States to think about what is our level of empathy for immigrants or migrants, or people who put everything on the line to try to make their way to this country. So I thought, “This is a good idea to be thinking about the classic and what seems far away — that is, in the Aegean, in the Mediterranean. But let’s talk about hospitality.” Let’s call it that: That’s the word that comes up in “The Odyssey” quite a lot. I don’t know Greek, but I know that there’s a word that keeps coming up in “The Odyssey,” xenia, which translates roughly to “hospitality.” And a bigger meaning of that is how we treat people who land on our shores.
All those subjects felt necessary to me even before there were more and more reports of boats sinking and people being lost at sea. I think the size and gravity of the situation is becoming clearer and clearer.
Q: With so much unrest in so many places, it just creates a situation where you have migrants everywhere.
A: Right. And you know, it’s very human to migrate. You know, “Crops aren’t good. The hunting isn’t successful anymore. We’ll move on.” I think it’s a human trait, a human impulse, but a common thing. But we still are not good at organizing around it or making it easier for people to do. Often it’s perilous.
I can’t exactly remember the moment the idea came to me about perilous sea journeys. But that’s what really struck me: We think of Odysseus as a hero and we think of people who pack everything into a backpack and get on a rubber boat as a victim or as someone we disdain. Why don’t we think of them as heroes? That’s kind of what I was asking myself. And I thought, “All of these ships, all of these boats, these rafts, all of these shipwrecks that the structure of ‘The Odyssey’ is … it’s one after another dangerous trip on something that’s barely a boat.”
Q: What are the plans for “Odyssey” beyond this fall tour?
A: We’re still sorting that out. We definitely want to bring it to New York and we’re trying to find the right partner to do that, and the right timing. I believe it’ll happen. But once the tour is done, there’ll be a little break, and The Acting Company is working on the next step, which might be another regional stop, and then coming to New York City.
Q: Is part of the idea of doing a tour like this to see how things work and fine-tune the play a little bit?
A: Yes. I can’t really work on it between tour stops because every minute of rehearsal on the road is about making sure it works in that venue. They have to work very fast. So I can’t put any changes in right now, but I’ve got already a work list ready to go for the next time that we can get back into a rehearsal room for a week.
That’s how new plays are built. It’s very, very hard to hit it perfectly the first time out. I am proud of what we’ve made, and I’ve got lots of thoughts about coming at it again, and I look forward to doing that when I get a chance.
Q: With a tour like this, are you involved at the start and then it goes off without you, or do you actually go to the different venues, city by city?
A: It’s really the first option. I was deeply involved in making it, up through the opening in California, and now that it’s on tour, I have a tour director — sort of an associate director who’s in charge of making sure that it works in every venue. I went down to see it in Philly because it was the first tour stop and I was curious. But I’m not sure I’m going to be able to visit it again. And The Acting Company … you know, this is what they do. So I trust them.
The Acting Company will perform “Odyssey” at the Peak Performances series at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. (visit peakperfs.org) and the Stockton Performing Arts Center in Galloway, Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. (visit stockton.edu/pac).
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