Homer's Odyssey, Redux - Franklin High School Theatre Company Surprises, Delights



by Michael Monasky | November 12, 2016 |  

Oh, god; yet another Greek tragedy. Gods and mortals fend, dance, and tell tales of each other in complex, confabulating, confusing, and boring language, even if it is translated English. My long-ago, high school drama experience was in the chorus of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel: “look at them clams...and what's more we're hungry as goats.”

No goats in this production, however; only hilariously sarcastic, bleating sheep accompanying Odysseus' crew in a piggy-backed escape from the blinded Cyclopes. Any dramatic or musical production requires scores of participants, laboring from set to finish. This Odyssey was particularly energetic: in two, ninety-minute acts, consisting of thirty-three scenes, thirty-four actors playing forty distinct parts, encompassing a twenty-year epic journey from a time three millennia past. About twenty staffed direction, props, costumes, make-up, and crew. Most everyone played multiple parts in this massively challenging production of Mary Zimmerman's redux of Homer's classic poem.

Zimmerman is known for her work at Chicago's Goodwin Theatre; she's won a Tony for her production of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and contributed the libretto to Philip Glass' opera, Gallileo Gallilei. She kept constant to Homer's story, meter, and complexity. At first, it was difficult to believe such utterances from the mouths of babes, but the acting, aplomb, posture, facial expressions, and more contributed to my faith that this story was told true.

Some high school productions can become awful, slow-motion train wrecks; but if any of the  script of the Odyssey was rushed or glitched, it was difficult for me to tell, particularly because of the excellent ensemble work. The rhythmic oaring was spot-on, as this is, after all, a tale of many shipwrecks. A number of scenes employed stop-action strobe lighting that enhanced dramatic effect. Group scenes demonstrated complex engagement by the ensemble; there was something to see in every point onstage. In solo and smaller scenes, the actors carefully chose multiple stage positions to improve communication of their message to all three audiences surrounding them. This is the energy that got the audience through three hours of drama.

The play included singing and dancing which delighted the crowd and pulled the story together. Memorable to the epic poem, and to this production, was the Siren scene, which reminded the audience that this was as much comedy as tragedy. Sure, Odysseus loses his ship and beloved crew, but the Sirens stole the show. One can only imagine that Mary Zimmerman got a huge chuckle in crafting this biting, satirical bit about the power of gender. Even the costumes played a role; of six Sirens, there was a bride in a wedding gown, a nurse in a short skirt, and one wearing a nun's habit. It was difficult to tell where burlesque suggestively transformed pornographic, especially when the Sirens finally turned to the audience in their angry indictments against men.

And maybe that's where the kids lost the adults. There was a lot of juvenile chatter and laughter while the adults sat stone-faced; the oldsters didn't get it...the “it” being the overall tone of this tale. Homer wrote with equal indignity towards his fellow man, but also to the gods, defining divine foibles as well as human limits. This tale is so important to be told more so than read, because it is as timeless and tragi-comic as Noah's Ark, or the Book of Job. Perhaps that's why adults are so captivated by political prevarication today; without reprisal Trump can say what he wants, and Clinton can do what she wants. Odysseus murders all the suitors in his home with impunity. Similar is Clinton's dangerous militarism, and Trump's claim that if he shot someone on Times Square, he'd get away with it.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the parental support that makes the Franklin Theatre Company possible; and to say that the lead roles of Odysseus and Athena were played so well I forgot that I was at a high school play. If Joseph Dennis and Giovanna Lomanto never make it to Broadway or the big time, I can assure you of this: someone in this cast will. And that's priceless. 


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