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Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and the national tour of The Acting Company’s The Odyssey, based on Penn professor Emily Wilson’s translation, investigates the full implications of this maxim. The show, written and directed by Lisa Peterson, got its Philly premiere at Penn Live Arts from September 30 through October 2 and will close out its run in New Jersey (Montclair State University on Thursday, November 9, and Stockton University in Galloway on Friday, November 10).
This new show is set in a modern-day Greek refugee camp, where four women stuck there don’t always want to perform, sing, and retell the journey of Homer’s “complicated man.” The enthusiastic Anoud (Layla Khoshnoudi) grew up on the poem and guides Zee (Zamo Mlengana), Hana (Anya Whelan-Smith), and Béa (Abiola Obatolu) through Homer’s epic verse, but this also causes them to examine their own harrowing paths into exile from home. What is Odysseus, after all, but a refugee, heartsick for the place he hasn’t seen in many years?
Questioning and reinterpreting
Wilson’s 2017 translation, the first in English from a female scholar, deliberately strips away the often sexist and sanitizing choices of previous translators to approach a stronger, richer version of the poem. Peterson mirrors Wilson’s language with her own direction, writing, and production choices. The four women use whatever items are in the camp (water bottles, blankets, old clothes) to tell the story, switching parts and props as they go. Tanya Orellana’s set is austere, save for a crackling radio tower and a screen projection of the vast ocean, which shifts in color and mood depending on the brilliant lighting from Russell Champa. Rarely has the poem’s description of the “wine-dark sea” been portrayed so literally and so beautifully.
Like Wilson, Zee, Hana, and Béa end up questioning and reinterpreting the story along the way. Anoud is a traditionalist who read the book her whole life and connects the story to her missing father. The others, less familiar with the story, question why the monsters are almost entirely female, even if they admire them. Zee also sees Odysseus’s violence and hubris as springing from his life as a hardened soldier. But the narrative nevertheless subsumes the four, who sing certain pieces accompanied by acoustic guitar (songs by Masi Asare), dropping the book they originally read out loud, as if the story now possesses them. They also diverge from the official poem by recounting their own lives and bonding in the process. This effect builds until the powerful conclusion, when both stories diverge but also blend, and the last character left onstage could be speaking either as Odysseus or herself.
Avoiding deeper waters
Yet, Peterson’s adaptation never pushes itself further into deeper or darker waters, though it’s creating an allegory using a serious, contemporary political situation. I was surprised the play made no connections between the angry, all-too-human gods who punish Odysseus and his men and the nations who’ve helped create our modern refugee crises thanks to foreign interventions and outright neglect of human life. Peterson’s refugees talk about the Arab Spring briefly, and Zee and Hana recount the dangerous rafts they endured to get to Europe. But how can these women talk about their problems without speaking about the circumstances that led to their status as immigrants? Their lives otherwise feel de-politicized for the sake of a tidier, kinder story when The Odyssey itself encourages us to see its hero within the greater context of Grecian statecraft and warfare.
If I have serious criticism of this play, it’s because I love the poem, and I do see the insight and tenderness beating at the heart of the adaptation. The Odyssey runs without an intermission, and I suspect a longer version that dwells more in the reality of refugee life and further fleshes out Hana and Béa would be ideal. But as it stands, the emotion and deeper longing will linger with audiences long after the curtain drops. “We tell ourselves stories to live,” of course, but the stories are also told so we can remember what once was, whether a year hence or a thousand, so we can consider what the places and people in our lives mean to us long after we’ve left them behind.
What, When, Where
The Odyssey. Based on Homer’s The Odyssey and translated by Emily Wilson, written and directed by Lisa Peterson. $42 ($10 for students). September 30-Oct 2, 2023, at the Annenberg Center’s Harold Prince Theatre, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (212) 258-3111 or theactingcompany.org.
The Odyssey contains strobe-light effects.
The Annenberg Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue. For more info, visit the Penn Live Arts accessibility page.
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