SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah’s production of Homer’s The Odyssey, one of the oldest works in western literature, attempts to put a modernized spin on the dated classic. This production uses Robert Fitzgerald’s translation with a stage adaptation by Mary Zimmerman. While there is usually a notable reason for a classic piece with an age of over 2,000 years to still be in production, I found myself struggling to identify the relevancy of this play. As a devourer of the classics, I was expecting more and found that the lengthy show and odd directorial choices missed the mark.
The well-known story of The Odyssey follows Odysseus on his 10-year quest home after the 10-year Trojan War. Odysseus has both friend and foe in finding his journey back to Ithaka. Poseidon is working against him while Athena is his guardian angel guiding him along the way. Odysseus encounters many obstacles and setbacks such as an angry cyclops, the seductress Kalypso, and the spiteful Circe who turned his men to swine. Meanwhile, back in Ithaka, Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, are trying to fend off a slew of suitors despite everyone believing that Odysseus is dead.
Directed by Alexandra Harbold, The Odyssey began with the ensemble in their toga-like costumes (costume design by Ariana Hatch) reading newspapers on the side of the stage while Athena and Zeus, dressed in modern black tie and business formal, are plotting on stage. When Athena returns to be a player in the story, she is then dressed as the rest of the cast. Initially, this costuming appeared to be an exciting presentation with the Gods sporting their formal attire marking their superiority. Although, as the production continued, it added little to the show, if not, confusion. Zeus sat atop the stage in a plush chair in his bow tie drinking a martini while Athena first appeared in a business suit. Poseidon was shown in a business suit and tie, while another scene represents others in red Dreamgirls-type costume complete with white satin gloves. While at times it added a comedic presence when modernized Zeus (played by Ethan Hernandez) reacted to the events on stage, including references to him, I found the idea behind the costume did not execute. The floating time period and style was perplexing with business, black tie, and 60s show girls.
Among other floating items of this productions was the narrator. As The Odyssey is originally a poem and meant to be a spoken piece, one would expect a certain level of narration instead of dialogue and action. But the transition from one narrator to the next or action to narration was not always smooth and sometimes interrupted the flow of the story. Odysseus would be playing out a scene and Athena would begin narrating, and other times Odysseus would be narrating instead of acting out what happened. However, the scenes transitioned well for the most part with the addition of singing and dancing utilizing a lot of movement. Although, some of this singing and dancing seemed to be unnecessary, and it just added to the length of the play. It would have been refreshing to see this script executed with more concision.
While Harbold attempted to add action and modernization and did have some successes, the 2-hour and 45-minute show failed to hold my attention. I found myself wondering what the point of this production was and not caring about the outcome of the characters, even Odysseus. I did not relate or connect. This production appeared to be a fresh vision and great effort that just failed to come together. However, there were some satisfying aspects to the show as well.
The scene with Odysseus and the cyclops was great. I enjoyed the way the cyclops was portrayed. The cast was very engaged with some shining moments, such as the scene where Circe turns the men into swine and they very convincingly convey the transition from man to beast. As top performers, I was very pleased with Ireland Nichols as Athena and Brynn Duncan as Penelope. Both ladies commanded my attention and displayed polished diction. Benjamin Young as Odysseus had an intriguing and deep speaking voice but could have exhibited more inflection and emotion. Overall, the ensemble and main players acted well.
Despite the fact that I felt disengaged and did not connect with this production, perhaps someone more acquainted with or passionate about Homer’s The Odyssey might have a different perspective. Per Dramaturg Nadia Sine’s notes, this production is meant to deliver the message of acceptance of outsiders. Towards the end I did see this message in passages such as, “Discourtesy is never handsome.” Although, for me, the work of getting through this play was not worth the message received.