Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The four characters who inhabit Lisa Peterson's new play, Odyssey, presented by The Acting Company in association with Marin Theatre Company in a world premiere production, are homesick in two distinct ways: they long for both their ancestral homelands (Albania, Syria, Tunisia and Rwanda), which have sadly become unrecognizable to them, and for a new place they can call home. But for now, Anoud (Layla Khoshnoudi), Zee (Zamo Mlengana), Hana (Anya Whelan-Smith), and Béa (Sophie Zmorrod) are stuck in a refugee camp on the island of Samos in the Mediterranean.
To pass the time while they wait their turn to move on from their captivity (a loudspeaker occasionally blasts mostly unintelligible messages about whose turn it is to leave the camp, which reinforces the chaotic and unsettled existence of its residents), Anoud suggests they perform the story of Homer's "Odyssey," the epic poem that tells the tale of Odysseus's long and perilous journey home from the Trojan War. Some, especially Zee, the Rwandan refugee, are hesitant to participate, but after some gentle cajoling from Anoud, the quartet finally dive into the story of Odysseus, his long-suffering wife Penelope, his son Telemachus, and the various gods, beasts, and oceanic perils that stood between Odysseus and his long-sought homecoming.
Using the simplest techniques of stagecraft (for in the camp there is little to support their dramatic efforts), Anoud and the others act out the tale, which occasionally, and often heartbreakingly, reminds them of their own harrowing journeys. There is an especially touching moment when Zee, Béa and Hana (who are unfamiliar with Homer's epic) hear how Penelope must protect her home from the grasping suitors who would steal from her. Their faces and body language instantly communicate that they understand all too well how easily things can be taken from them. Not only possessions, but family, freedom and opportunity.
The cast is quite skilled, and mesh nicely with each other. It would be interesting to see how their familiarity and comfort continue to grow as The Acting Company takes Odyssey on the road to more than a dozen communities that don't have the sort of thriving theatrical scene with which we in the Bay Area are blessed.
Though most of the most famous elements of The Odyssey are here–the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the suitors seeking Penelope's hand–Peterson (who also directs) leaves out one of my favorite elements of the story: how Odysseus is recognized (even though he is disguised as a beggar) by his faithful dog, Argos, who–after waiting many years for his master to return–greets him warmly and then, duty completed, gives a last whimper and dies.
The set, by Tanya Orellana, is appropriately spare and institutional, reinforcing the camp as a sort of warehouse or distribution center–but instead of goods being stored, sorted and shipped, it is humans who are the cargo.
Though the characters are sometimes a little too thinly drawn and the transition from hesitant players to enthusiastic thespians happens a little too easily, Odyssey uses a classic tale to tell an unfortunately timeless story of people displaced by war and strife, in a touching and entertaining way.
Odyssey runs through September 24, 2023, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$72. For tickets and information, please visit marintheatre.org or call the box office at 415-388-5208.