ITHACA, NY -- A theatrical community collaboration by the Hangar Theatre Company and The Cherry invites a timely look at the present through the past: revisiting Homer’s epic homecoming tale, “The Odyssey,” in the light of today’s global migration.
On Wednesday, Sept. 1, at 5 p.m., the story’s themes of survival, diaspora and displacement are further pursued in a virtual community conversation. Speakers are board members of Ithaca City of Asylum: Athena Kirk, Odyssey scholar and Cornell classics professor, and Bethany Dixon, a poet who explores women in ancient Greek texts. Dramaturg Aoise Stratford moderates, and the public can join at bit.ly/OdysseyPanelDiscussion.
The show’s themes are also addressed in two other events: a free performance on the Hangar stage by Lifelong’s Senior Troupe, presenting “The Journey Home: An Epic Simile,” also Wednesday, Sept. 1, at 2:30 p.m., and on Thursday, Sept. 2, outdoors at The Cherry, “Feasting the Sea-God,” with storyteller Jay Leeming.
The main event, imaginatively adapted and directed by Cherry artistic director Sam Buggeln, takes place on the Hangar’s outdoor stage, the final show of a heroic summer season, led by Shirley Serotsky. It’s a collaboration not only of the two theater companies, but of local folks alongside actors with a range of experience, staging a 2,000-year-old epic “by our town, for our town.”
The 20 performers play multiple roles throughout, with narrator Cynthia Henderson at the side, as Muse or Fate, speaking directly to Odysseus. The action captures all the high, or rather low, points of Odysseus’s decade-long voyage back to Ithaka after the 10-year Trojan War –– being captured by the one-eyed giant Polyphemus and escaping by blinding him (most bloody); the sailors’ enslavement, being turned into pigs by Circe; Odysseus’s torment as bound to the mast, he strains to break free on hearing the Sirens’ call.
Eerie music, striking masks, robes diaphanous or tattered, and suggestive props (such as poles serving as spears or oars) all reflect the talents of the large production crew –– led by scenic designer Czerton Lim, costumer Glenna Ryer, with lighting and sound by Elizabeth Stewart and Don Tindall. The visuals are dramatic, exciting, clever and at times comical, pulling us inexorably into the action.
Two millennia later, this story has remarkable staying power –– even though we know the narrative and its outcome, we’re on the edge of our seats. One choice Buggeln has made twists the tale: our hero is not played by one man, but by ten actors of different ages and genders. The switch is signified by passing a mantle of twisted ropes, which the next protagonist dons. The first time we see a “new” Odysseus in a scene we’re a little surprised, but then we quickly accommodate, realizing that “we are all Odysseus” –– we’ve all had our own challenging voyages, temptations, doubts, poor choices, hard decisions to make.
One of the hardest, for Odysseus, is realizing that to sail past six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, he’ll have to sacrifice many of his men. The nearer he gets to home, the deeper his desperation, and ours, until the intense scene where his ship is finally destroyed, his men lost. (Poseidon has had it in for him all along, though Zeus lets Athena keep helping her favorite.) At this last moment, Odysseus is tossed in the waves (blue-grey banners simulating the sea) and slammed ashore, denuded, nearly dead. He’s home, but at great cost.
In this production, Sylvie Yntema embodies the faithful wife, Penelope, and Jack Damien her son Telemachus, eager to be worthy of his father; they’re surrounded by an aptly officious group of suitors who resemble obnoxious burghers. As the narrating muse, the accomplished Cynthia Henderson moves the action along at a good pace, though opening night her delivery was excessively theatrical and the constant snaky hand gestures were distracting, an odd directorial choice. One actor dropped quite a few lines, but in general everyone was highly persuasive, and assistant director Rafael López stepped in splendidly for an ill cast member. Overall, the diverse levels of experience meshed well, the bursts of colloquial dialogue were refreshing, and the staging was constantly absorbing.
More than a global migration metaphor, we ultimately connect to individual struggles here: that of Penelope and Telemachus, of Odysseus, and interestingly, of his comrades, torn between following orders and thinking for themselves. “An Odyssey” is a voyage well worth taking.
“An Odyssey,” directed bySamuel Buggeln. At the Hangar Theatre outdoor stage, at 7:30 p.m. Sept 1-4, and 2:30 p.m. Sept. 4. Tickets at 607.273.2787.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.