In Walcott's hands, 'Odyssey' retains its timelessness

October 14, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"The Odyssey" is one of the largest epic poems ever written, and Derek Walcott's West Indian-flavored stage version -- making its American premiere at Washington's Arena Stage -- is an appropriately large-scale theatrical event.

A cast of 20 plays more than 40 characters and wears 150 costumes. The language in Walcott's three-hour verse marathon ranges from lyrical to irreverent, and there's an original island-inspired score composed by "Hair's" Galt MacDermot.

Although Walcott, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize, adheres to Homer's basic plot, he also makes numerous creative departures. The result is an "Odyssey" as ancient as classical Greek and as modern as science fiction.

Walcott's most obvious creative addition is "Blind" Billy Blue, a guitar-playing West Indian narrator whose blindness is a reference to Homer. He is played by Wendell Wright in dreadlocks. A smaller, but still significant departure affects the title character. Casey Biggs' Odysseus may be admirably loyal to home and hearth, but he also has a reputation for greed.

Science fiction rears its head in the scene with the Cyclops. Played by Richard Bauer as an obese, bald, black-leather-clad dictator who covers his single eye with a fishbowl-sized lens, he commands a security force that could have trained with Darth Vader.

As this last example suggests, the eclecticism of Walcott's text is augmented by the look of Arena's production, for which credit is shared by director Douglas C. Wager, costume designer Paul Tazewell, set designer Thomas Lynch, lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes, and movement and fight director David S. Leong, to name a few.

When Odysseus' son, Telemachus (Teagle F. Bougere), sets off by chariot to find his long-absent father, he stands on a stool with three actors portraying horses in front, and the long braids worn by one of these "horses" serve as reins. Later, Odysseus rides a raft suspended from the ceiling and swaying on a fabric "sea" whose waves are created by actors raising and lowering its corners.

Like these relatively simple but majestic effects, Walcott's "Odyssey" focuses on one of Homer's simplest but broadest themes -- to borrow the mantra of Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz": "There's no place like home."

Far-fetched as a reference to "The Wizard of Oz" might sound, the connection has some foundation. When Dorothy returns home and discovers that the farmhands bear a striking resemblance to her friends in Oz, she is comforted. For Odysseus, it works the other way around. When he slays his wife's suitors, he notices they look like his Trojan War comrades, and he fears for his sanity.

Nor can this merely be due to the economy of multiple casting. Instead, Odysseus' reaction seems part of a pacifist theme added by Walcott. Odysseus' bout of temporary insanity raises questions about the efficacy of war, and the theme becomes even more pronounced when his wife, Penelope (Cordelia Gonzalez), reacts to the slayings with unbridled disgust.

"The Odyssey" was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the show's size pretty much ensures that only a subsidized theater -- or a non-profit like Arena -- can afford to produce it. Arena's production is a decidedly odd amalgam, but it proves the validity of one of the script's own lines: "The gates of imagination never close."

"The Odyssey"

Where: Arena Stage, 6th and Maine Ave., S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. selected Saturdays, 2 p.m. selected Sundays and noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays; through Nov. 6

Tickets: $20-$39

Call: (202) 488-3300

*** 1/2

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