Kailen Fleck in University Theatre's The Odyssey
Heather Pickering knows how to fill a stage with magic. The UW-Madison MFA candidate proved that in her beautifully orchestrated The Odyssey at University Theatre (through Nov. 16 at Mitchell Theatre). Unfortunately, this gorgeous mélange of stagecraft doesn’t tell a compelling story.
Pickering weaves together haunting original music by UW student and actor A. Christian Inouye and athletic, inventive choreography by UW Dance Department professor Li Chiao-Ping to depict Odysseus' 10-year journey home to Ithaca. With an ensemble of 14 students who play multiple roles, and simple props like stools, poles and ropes, the director takes the audience to the underworld, the land of the sirens and the cave of the Cyclops. The story follows Odysseus across many treacherous seas, until he finally reunites with his wife and son.
Homer's ancient poem is populated with all the gods, heroes, villains, obstacles and battles one might expect to find in a modern blockbuster or videogame. But like some action movies filled amazing scenery and special effects, this production's story doesn't connect emotionally, or even create much dramatic tension. Strong performances by Kailen Fleck (Odysseus) and Kate Mann (Athena) help narrate the tale, yet the show lacks excitement and urgency. It feels more like a pageant than a riveting adventure.
Mary Zimmerman's adaptation offers several unexpected moments that update the ancient text, including some in which sirens in blood-red costumes masquerade as Girl Scouts, nuns and brides. Such characters present a fresh picture of desire and fantasy. Ultimately, though, these scenes were out of step with the rest of the production, which was much more traditional.
Overall, the cast has a masterful command of the script's poetry, and there are moments of beauty and whimsy. The production simply lacks the passion that draws audiences to epic stories of adventure.