The Pittsburgh Tatler – Imagine, if you will, one of those old-fashioned TV game shows with two doors. Behind Door Number One is the Odysseus we all know from the Homerian epic: valiant hero, master strategizer, savvy trickster, and luckless victim of the gods’ perverse whims.
Behind Door Number Two? Well, that’s the bedraggled guy (a long-haired and magnificently bearded Sam Turich) who washes up on the shores of Phaeacia and gets cajoled by a bored and restless Princess Nausicaa (Erika Strasburg) into recounting the details of where he’s been for the past decade. It’s a story he’s very reluctant to tell, because (spoiler alert!) he’s done a lot of things no person would be proud to boast about, let alone carry home to his long-suffering wife Penelope (Catherine Growl). For as Jay Ball’s wittily resistant retelling of the Homeric epic observes, The Odyssey can pretty much be boiled down to a story of a group of armed White men repeatedly landing in places inhabited by people who don’t resemble them in looks or customs. And, well: we all know how that story really goes.
In Ball’s version – aptly named An Odyssey – Odysseus is not only an ur-Colonizer who invades foreign lands, destroys everything of value to the native inhabitants, and leaves them traumatized, he’s also the quintessential Mediocre Man, overconfident and overcompensated because the sociopolitical world has been designed expressly to give people like him free pass after free pass. How the Mediocre Man behind Door Number Two might have become the hero behind Door Number One is the question at the heart of Ball’s exceptionally satisfying adaptation.
I shan’t give the answer to that question away, because it’s the unexpected twist in a production that asks you to think in a twisty way about who tells certain stories and why they need those stories to tell certain truths. What I will say is that An Odyssey demands that its actors juggle many complicated and shifting motivations for their characters, and they do so with great finesse. Turich, for example, is constantly maneuvering between the frat-boy-bravado of the Odysseus who is, in the understated words of his most loyal soldier Gryllus (Shammen McCune), “kind of a dick,” and the older man who regretfully confesses that his main talent in life has been to “drift.” Strasburg likewise adroitly ping-pongs back and forth between being Odysseus’s harshest critic and his most eager booster.
Director Jed Allen Harris always seems most in his comfort zone when he can mix and match theatrical styles and tones, and Ball’s script gives him ample room to move from the serious to the satirical to the playful and silly to the tragic. The production offers comedy in several registers, including slapstick stage fights (choreographed by Randy Kovitz) and a couple of bawdy audio jokes (in Joe Pino’s terrific sound design). It also has moments of poignant tragedy, particularly in the reenactment of Odysseus’s encounter with Polyphemus, the Cyclops, which takes on added resonance as a story of brutal colonization through the casting of Sam Lothard, a Black actor, as the victim of the Greeks’ violent xenophobic “othering.” Lothard ends this scene with a poignant and heartbreaking plea for justice, and then remarkably returns to the stage a few minutes later in a high comic turn as an asthmatic and double-entendre-spouting Hermes. Such is the affective whiplash Harris delights to serve up…