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The Odyssey is one of our oldest extant works of literature, but the poem we have today is far from its original form. Before Homer’s epic was committed to the page, it existed within and was transmitted through the oral tradition, the fare of rhapsodes performing town to town. Yet much is still unknown as to when a definitive version of the text emerged and what techniques would have been used to convey the story. In a widely preliterate Greece, how would this tale have been told?
Bill George’s Odysseus, now running at Pig Iron as part of the 2023 Philly Fringe, is an attempt to answer this question. A one-man retelling of the original poem, the play faithfully renders Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War in a captivating work of oratory performance. It feels less an act of adaptation than of reversion, unmooring the poem from the pages on which it arrived to us and returning it to the rhetorical mode from whence it came.
That this experiment succeeds to any degree can be ascribed to George’s masterful storytelling, a sturdy vessel that skillfully navigates the ebbs and flows of Odysseus’s tempestuous homecoming. His first and foremost part is that of the narrator, a character in his own right. When he steps into other roles, each attendant with its own deeply textured physicality, he does so with a knowing wink to the audience so that we never forget he is still the narrator, cycling through his many masks. This, of course, must have been how it originally was: less a fully-fledged theatrical production and more the spirited work of an imaginative grandfather tasked to read a bedtime story.
As much as the play is an attempt to understand The Odyssey’s original conduit, it is also an attempt to understand Odysseus himself. “Let us tell of a man,” begins George’s iteration of the poem, “troubled by woes,” and indeed, the first image of our protagonist is that of a man prone on a beach, weeping in the sand. From here on, the play contends with the tension of its protagonist: a classical hero with a surprising emotional reservoir, this man who seems to contain within him all men. He is a soldier, yet he cries; he endures the advances of the nymph Calypso yet must be tied to a mast lest he succumb to siren song; he possesses a seemingly infinite aptitude for invention yet is capable of such mindlessness, such bloodshed. In one scene, he intones to a rapt audience: “My name is Odysseus, but you do not know me!” It is as if he speaks here beyond the story to every reader and performer who has ever tried to grasp the man.
Aside from Odysseus, George’s most fascinating turn is as the goddess Athena, the character who, like the narrator, slips in and out of several guises, both to move the plot along and to watch these mortals in their endless pursuits. Other highlights include Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, who struggles with what it means to be a man; Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, who resists the efforts of suitors to win her hand in her husband’s absence; and Nestor, an old warrior who fought alongside Odysseus, who now rues his memories of bloodshed and of the wars which cost him his son.
Through it all, George is joined onstage by Rob Aptaker, who provides a series of soundscapes—the thunderous beats of the heavens, the lapping of water on the shore—that are resonant in their simplicity. Together, the restraint of their work evinces the sense of a traveling troupe stopping by just for the night. The sparse set and instruments might be packed in a wagon after the show, carted to the next town over, and the town after that, to be performed again and again.
What, When, Where
Odysseus. By Bill George. $25. Through September 10, 2023, at Pig Iron, Studio B, 1417 N 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.
Pig Iron is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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