The Odyssey

Goodman Theatre

By Adam Langer

“How long is it?

“That’s a rather personal question, sir.”

–Monty Python’s Flying Circus

The man in the lobby of Facets before the noon showing of Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense took a look at the blackboard and snorted. “Three hours? That’s rich,” the man said to his companion. “Everything this guy does is three hours. Honestly, is there anything that can be said in three hours that you can’t say in two?”

The man in a skybox at the United Center whispered to his date, “You wanna get anything, get it now. Last time I saw Bruce, he played for three frickin’ hours.”

After groaning and sighing through the first act of Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Odyssey, two middle-aged men at the Goodman Theatre conferred during intermission. “Jesus Christ almighty,” one of them said. “You can’t have a first act that long. That’s crazy.” The other grumbled, “I took off my shoes. I was thinking I was losing circulation.” The first responded, “It’s just inhumane. You gotta think about the audience. After an hour, people gotta go get some air, water their horse, rest their hemorrhoids, or somethin’.”

Three major artists appearing in three very different venues in a single week, and all anybody could talk about was the time it took to watch the show. In our attention-span-challenged times, anything that’s longer than Art and rules out getting to a restaurant before 10 PM seems to be cause for grousing. But what those overheard at each venue overlooked was the fact that the length of these events was an asset. Rivette’s luxurious extended takes in train interiors create a palpable tension; Springsteen had time to dip into his songbook and find odd, overlooked gems that didn’t show up on Born in the U.S.A.; and Zimmerman–who directed a two-part, six-hour version of The Odyssey for Lookingglass almost ten years ago–has come very close to re-creating the enthralling experience of reading Homer. In her case, three hours seemed almost insufficient; her self-assured production and beautiful imagery could easily have gone on for another three hours. That might have cleared out the cranks, which wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world.

Zimmerman’s style and approach do take some getting used to: the first few scenes of her Odyssey can be somewhat off-putting. There sits a punked-out Mariann Mayberry in a black halter top and red capri pants reading aloud from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey. “Sing in me, muse,” she brays three times before her muse scurries up behind her, covers her eyes, and forces her to recite the opening to the epic from memory. Before we know it, Mayberry has transformed herself into Pallas Athena using what appear to be Doc Martens instead of charmed sandals, and Zeus has entered wearing what looks for all the world like a Nehru jacket.

Not exactly a classical interpretation. But the jokey additions (or, if you must, the postmodern touches) effectively recreate the way a reader or audience member might well experience The Odyssey in 1999. In the beginning the mind wanders, searching for contemporary references on which to ground an understanding of Homer. So it makes sense here for Penelope’s suitors, come to woo her and wreak havoc in her house while her husband is at sea, to march in wearing what appear to be the toothy parts of garden rakes like armor. Hermes rides in on a bicycle with a basket, wings affixed to his shoes and his bike messenger’s helmet. Poseidon, sporting heavy-metal hair, carries a trident and a suitcase. The immortal Calypso–who saves, then imprisons Odysseus on her island–wears a giant red bow as if she were a walking, talking Hanukkah present. And Circe–the temptress who turns Odysseus’s men into swine–appears in a reddish-purple Stevie Nicks getup, with either snakes or tefillin wrapped around her arms.

But as the play goes on these witty anachronisms become less frequent; like the reader who’s drawn in after several chapters, the audience begins to feel the siren pull of Zimmerman’s interpretation. Once Odysseus escapes Calypso, washes up on the shore of a friendly island, and begins to tell his tale, one cannot help but be captivated by his long, adventurous voyage.

Though the staging is beautiful throughout, once Odysseus changes from the subject of the play to its chief storyteller Zimmerman really ransacks her theatrical bag of tricks–and her talent for imagery and the story’s dramatic potential converge. She stages Odysseus’s harrowing trip to the underworld, where he encounters his grieving mother, using echoing voices and John Boesche’s eerie black-and-white film projections. And Odysseus’s return to Ithaca contains one of the most breathtaking stage images in recent memory: to depict Odysseus slaying Penelope’s suitors, Zimmerman has Athena take a spear and puncture sandbags hung from the rafters, their contents raining down on Odysseus’s victims.

The only real problem with Zimmerman’s approach is that the production’s visual majesty, particularly in the first act, at times detracts from the drama. With such pristine imagery, such well-scrubbed performers, such immaculate costumes, the hero’s 20-year journey can seem less like an odyssey than an extended cruise. Little in Zimmerman’s world is violent or ugly; everything is cleansed and ritualized. With several notable exceptions–among them Christopher Donahue’s commanding, poetic Odysseus and Felicity Jones’s intelligent and elegant Penelope–the performers can seem like store-window mannequins with excellent diction. But though these features may be momentarily irritating, they cannot rob the story and the staging of its emotional impact.

Wisely, Zimmerman presents Penelope and Odysseus’s reunion largely unadorned. But for the finale she creates one last stunning image. Against a vast cyclorama, Odysseus enters wearing white robes and carrying an oar, looking suspiciously like Christ carrying the cross. He sticks the oar into the ground and a childlike Mayberry begins asking him questions: “What is an oar?” “What is the sea?” Her questions act as pleas for Odysseus to tell another story. In essence, Christ is reborn as a storyteller; for Zimmerman, stories are the key to our salvation.

No matter how long they are–in fact, one wishes the best stories could go on forever. Or at least another few hours.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.