The Handcart Ensemble in New York City is an ambitious group. Their mission is “bringing new life to literary masterworks by combining bold, innovative staging with language rich translations, adaptations, and classically inspired new works.” Well, you can’t get a much more definitive classical masterwork than the Odyssey by Homer. Using a bright clear new translation and adaptation by Simon Armitage they have created an adventurous and exciting evening of theatre.
The play was commissioned by the BBC so it is a very vivid retelling of the story with a minimum of narrative (just to fill in the blanks: the story is long and complex). The Handcart Ensemble has added to this marvelous text some very inventive staging using a small number of props that transform into other props (a walking stick becomes an oar, a spear, and finally a ship’s mast). The production is also blessed by a fairly talented and well-spoken company that helps bring this epic story to life.
The play begins with Zeus (a very effective John Michalsky) and Athena fighting over the fate of Odysseus, who has been lost at sea or waylaid on several islands for many years attempting to get home to his adoring wife Penelope (a strong Elizabeth Ruelas). Penelope has her own trials to overcome, as she is besieged by suitors trying to get her to marry them. Along the way our hero (that’s what he was to the Greeks, serving as a model for the ideal Greek) encounters Circe, the temptress, who turns half his men into cattle, and the Cyclops who eats several more crew members as dinner; he also takes a trip to the underworld to get help from the blind prophet Tiresias and lives to tell the tale. In the end Odysseus and his son Telemachus slay the Penelope's suitors and the family is reunited.
To tell this tale director J. Scott Reynolds has employed the above-mentioned versatile props as well as puppets (the Cyclops is a huge one-eyed monster worthy of the old Bread and Puppet Theatre) and some live music. He keeps the pace moving and the speech precise and flowing. I do have a few caveats about the acting. I didn’t feel that many of the cast had internalized the characters, so what we see is merely a representation rather than a real person. The actor who plays Odysseus unfortunately lacks charisma and doesn’t give us much variety.
Homer's Odyssey has been extended through Oct. 26 at the Theatres at 45 Bleecker, NYC.