Lookingglass Theatre Company

at Chicago Filmmakers

He knew how to say many false things that were like true sayings.–Homer, in The Odyssey

Is it a sign of the times, or just coincidence, that in the past three months I’ve seen two stage versions of The Odyssey that suggested the story was mostly a lie?

Of course literary scholars and historians have long debated whether or not the stories in Homer’s epic reflected true events and phenomena: Were the twin monsters Scylla and Charybdis (one plucked men out of their ships, the other sucked the ships down whole) anthropomorphic visions of a dangerous cliff and a deadly waterfall? Did the Lotus Eaters, that tribe of hedonists who nearly detained Odysseus’s crew forever with their magic fruit, really exist in Libya? Were the one-eyed cyclopes some exaggeration of a real tribe of cannibals in Sicily?

But the recent stage versions of The Odyssey presented in these parts by the Lookingglass Theatre and the National Theatre of the Deaf go further: they suggest that the stories were conscious fabrications. If The Odyssey is a portrayal of a man’s (and perhaps humanity’s) capacity for survival against overwhelming odds, the Lookingglass and NTD productions are portraits of man’s capacity for lying. Perhaps that’s a natural response to eight years of anecdotes and platitudes from a charming, popular, dishonest president.

The duplicity in NTD’s raffish, athletic Odyssey, seen in March at Barat College, was of a fairly innocent sort: the famous stories of Odysseus’s great wanderings were presented as stories told by Odysseus and his men to keep themselves distracted while they waited inside the Trojan Horse until it was time to emerge and sack the walled city. Thus the legends took on a universal quality: Odysseus became a kind of everyman, and his stories became our stories.

The two-part, multimedia production adapted by Mary Zimmerman for Lookingglass Theatre takes a different approach. It was originally developed as a student production at Northwestern University (where Zimmerman has trained in the school’s performance-studies program, which combines theatrical disciplines with studies in comparative literature, art, and Jungian psychology). This Odyssey is cool, refined, academic. Nothing is left to chance. Its visual formality and deadpan humor convey a distanced attitude that suggests nothing should be taken seriously. When Odysseus, presumed dead after having been away from his home in Ithaca for 20 years, finally returns to reclaim his waiting wife from the callous corps of suitors who have settled into his house, he comes at first in disguise and tricks his son and servants with a story about having come from Crete. This lie, which becomes a running gag toward the show’s end, is treated with as much sincerity by the young actor playing Odysseus as the other stories have been. Were they all lies? one is prodded to ask.

There are certainly grounds for this interpretation in the original epic poem. Much of the story–including the fact that Odysseus has been “detained” for eight years by the nymph Calypso on her island–are told from the objective, presumably truthful perspective of a narrator who is getting his information from the gods themselves. But the famous stories of Odysseus’s great wanderings–his encounters with the cyclops, the sirens, the sorceress Circe, his own dead mother in the underworld, and so on–are all told by Odysseus himself as an extended flashback. Why should we believe them, when we know that Odysseus is famous for his cunning and duplicitousness more than anything else?

These are the thoughts that Zimmerman’s studiously artificial show produce. They’re what we’re left with when the story–so extravagant, exciting, entertaining, and emotional–has been drained of most of its extravagance, excitement, entertainment, and emotion.

Zimmerman’s Odyssey is always intelligently conceived and frequently interesting to look at. Relying on elegantly formal composition and gestural choreography–a little like Antony Tudor’s psychological ballets, minus the sense of passion and turmoil–Zimmerman produces some intriguing and lovely moments. When Athena, Odysseus’s guardian goddess, changes form from human to bird, the actress playing her jumps into the upstretched hands of an actor, who carries her offstage as she holds a graceful soaring pose. When Calypso, under orders from Zeus, reluctantly sets Odysseus free, their parting is depicted in a dance in which Odysseus attempts to construct a symbolic raft while Calypso jumps over and on top of him. The suitors, depicted as LaSalle Street traders, lounge on chairs in artful poses, while Penelope and Telemachus, Odysseus’s wife and son, stand downstage and shade their eyes as if looking out to sea. There is no sense of real searching in their eyes; any attempt to convey emotion from inside the actor has been systematically squelched. Rather, the pose tells the story.

Likewise, there’s no attempt to make the audience believe that Odysseus, played by David Catlin, feels anything like exhaustion or pain during his numerous adventures–another clue that perhaps it’s all a lie. Catlin, a muscular youth who walks with the plodding bullishness of a high school wrestler, seems like an empty vessel waiting to be filled; he’s hardly the legendary warrior-king of epic tradition. His son Telemachus (Andrew White) and wife Penelope (Joy Gregory) slip into the stolid, suffering stereotype of traditional Classics Illustrated versions of the epic; Zimmerman doesn’t seem to know what to do with her main characters if she can’t take their heroism seriously.

The supporting actors exhibit more complex characterizations, though there’s nothing here I would identify as deep or original. Eva Barr is a quirky, playful Athena; Chris Donahue’s supercilious Zeus sits in a white dinner jacket atop a scaffolding and adjusts the lights while looking down upon mortal folly; Lawrence DiStasi is an amusing, perpetually annoyed, bicycle-riding messenger god Hermes; and Philip R. Smith is marvelously dry and cynical as the suitor Antinous. But Zimmerman doesn’t want to take this personality stuff too far. So when Antinous and his buddies receive their long-overdue comeuppance, their deaths are represented abstractly: they stand, bathed in red light, as ribbons of sand stream down from bags suspended above their heads. Dust to dust, and all that.

The quality of marked artifice that is imposed on the cast is reinforced by the technical elements. The main set piece in the show is a series of platforms that stand against the theater’s exposed-brick walls; these platforms contain a three-piece band (equipped with keyboards, mandolin, pipes, and percussion instruments, though the bulk of Eric Huffman’s electronic score is heard on tape–again, that sense of nothing being left to chance), an offstage waiting area for the actors, and several lighting instruments. A movie screen is pulled on and off the stage like a curtain for the production’s several murky film sequences, which add little to the production besides justification for its claim to being multimedia.

As an exercise in multidisciplinary performance, The Odyssey is an interesting, well crafted, highly disciplined effort. It’s not compelling enough to justify a two-part, four-and-a-half-hour production, but with intelligent trimming it would make a striking and theatrically exciting three-hour show. And the story, 3,000 years after it was first sung, is great–even if you don’t want to believe it.