Derek Walcott’s staging of Homer’s epic poem is a richly crafted labyrinth. Its passages and passageways fixate on the notions of home/homeless, faith/love (with unintentional but rewarding echoes of fellow Nobel laureate John Steinbeck’s generational voyage through human monsters and debilitating devotion in the Salinas valley of East of Eden) and the power of all-seeing beings whether human or gods: one-eyed or blind.
It has a marvellous Caribana-on-Avon feel through its thoughtful casting and island-lyrical lines. Director Peter Hinton’s staging has further expanded Walcott’s centuries-old/contemporary-told universe by populating the Trinidadian hero’s family (courageously headed by Nigel Shawn Williams) with a Korean coming-of-age son, Telemachus (In-Surp Choi whose burgeoning talent is utilized in four roles, the best of the bunch being his deceptively light rendering of the doomed steersman, Elpenor) and a white, ever-patient wife, Penelope (Allegra Fulton demonstrates considerable range and versatility in her additional assignments as the attention-craving Helen of Troy and the deliciously whorish Circe) and his British dearly departed mom, Anticlea (Joyce Campion—the model of deathly contentment in the underground railway of Hades where the perpetual trains never complete their journeys).
Odysseus’ grueling ten-year trek from the plunder-filled triumph (brought about by the successful deceit of a wooden horse) back to his native Ithaca is hung/sung together by composer/performer Jeremiah Sparks’ gritty, involved delivery of the scene-setting verses—many given half-way up the bleachers in the Studio Theatre. The character’s name is Billy Blue whose lilt and tone successfully bridge the gap of Homer’s long-ago poetry and the story tellin’ appeal of Caribbean music. At various times the company is called upon to respond in Greek-chorus fashion. On opening night the ensemble was ragged—particularly in straight speech—but improved with time as the harmonizers observed brazen infidelity or unrelenting murder while Penelope’s greedy, glutinous suitors (100 awaiting her choice to become the next king, once Odysseus’ death was confirmed beyond doubt and her seemingly forever woven shroud was complete) awaited their turn in the replacement sweepstakes.
It falls to the Goddess Athena (Jennifer Morehouse) flitting above the action as a swallow or disguised as a naval captain (the whites were perfect) or shepherd (cowboy garb here) to advise, cajole and inspire Odysseus to continue his quest—whether nearly drowned by the wrath of her fellow god Proteus or haunted by the walking dead who’d died for their leader’s cause.
Much of the tale’s tableau is magically conjured up in the minds of the audience by the careful use of just enough props, costume and lights to confirm the disbelief and have the detail completed by the power of suggestion. Set designer Carolyn Smith has brilliantly crafted the ship from a doorless elderly sedan and planted a mast with a furled sail in its trunk. For propulsion, aided and abetted by Robert Thomson’s lighting smarts, the crew members are given oars with torch tips; for steering, Choi variously guides from the rear or—feet poking through the floorboards in a wonderful Flintstones moment—flies his 4-wheel chariot from the driver’s seat with a regular steering wheel that will have all videogame enthusiasts hoping that his chase sequence will soon be available for download.
The challenge of dressing seventeen actors to portray well over 100 characters in the fast-moving pace is met with style and ingenuity by Katherine Lubienski. Killing nearly that amount is deftly handled with fight captain John Stead’s efficient slaughter plan (although in the final bloodbath the oral countdown of each death occasionally misfires and threatens to cheapen the effect of over-the-top carnage) and Jo Leslie’s effective movement advice. In the confines of this venue, that’s no small accomplishment.
As good as the cast and crew are (especially the waves that move much of the storyline, once they collectively find their rhythm and pulse) it’s Walcott’s brilliance that carries the show and stimulates the mind even during the few becalmed moments. “What lasts is what’s crooked. The devious man survives,” slips in Phemius during an athletic competition. “Maybe. But when did the truth make men wise,” offers Penelope to the newly arrived beggar in her palace whom she fails to recognize as her husband and father of their son.
In order to save his family from the vastly outnumbered suitors who have—effectively—besieged his house, Odysseus must appear as grimy as the pigs that feed the lechers who pine for Penelope’s hand and would happily slay the heir Telemachus to entrench their power. Much to their horror—when the tables are turned and their own demise is imminent—the privileged class drops to their knees, begging for their lives from the one they’d just scorned as an unworthy beggar. Imagine! The homeless taking deadly revenge on those who chose not to “see.” Couldn’t happen here. JWR