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Writing for Us

A CurtainUp Review
The Odyssey

Then an uplifted oar is stronger than marble Caesar's arresting palm, and a swift outrigger Fleeter than his galleys in its skittering bliss.
Derek Walcott is a lover of language. The distinguished Nobel Prize-winner made his name by writing poetry that is vital and humanly rich. By no means obscure and difficult, as can be said of so much modern poetry, Walcott's work astonishes by evoking the luscious, sensuous world of his own Caribbean home. To read his writing is to be reminded again of the astonishing range of the English language.

Walcott is perhaps less well known as a playwright, although his has published 15 plays, including the Obie Award-winning Dream on Monkey Mountain. He has taught playwrighting at Boston University for years, and founded two theatre companies, one in Trinidad and one in Boston. His many labors include working on the book for Paul Simon's The Capeman, his most recent effort on Broadway, but he has been produced elsewhere including by The New York Shakespeare Festival, the Mark Taper Forum and the Negro Ensemble Company.

Based on the 1990 epic poem Omeros, The odyssey, Walcott's newest project, the stage version of the epic poem originally written in Greek by Homer, premiered two years ago, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992. This new production directed by Edward Berkeley includes an ensemble of sixteen actors, three musicians, with original music by Venezuelan composer Cesar Manzano. Although nothing close to the scale of Paul Simon's debut, this production is a miniature version of that titanic disappointment.

The author has described this work as a compressed version of Homer's experiences of Odysseus. The narrative is framed as a performed poem. A singer named Blind Billy Blue replaces the Greek chorus. The play is about a man who is trying to return home after being away for 10 years and must overcome all the obstructions put before him by Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Lost at sea after conquering Troy, Odysseus encounters a series of challenges of his journey home, most famously that of the Cyclops. In this version, for example, the Cyclops is a totalitarian dictator, as the isle of Scheria is the setting for a '60s beach party. These updates and physical transformations are meant to suggest that in Walcott's mind at least, the Aegean and the Caribbean possess parallel cultural realities.

Executing such a cultural transformation is no small thing. The layers of translation and adaptation, eventually, and perhaps inevitably, obscure the essential. Meant originally to be committed to memory and sung to listeners raised on the legends, by the time this epic has been dramatized, Americanized, and modernized, what we get is a nearly incomprehensible mess. The direction by Edward Berkeley and musical staging by Hope Clarke lack coherence and meaning. The actors seem to wander the stage, bumping into one another, upstaging each other, turning their backs to the audience, in an inarticulate version of the musical Hair, but without the music.

The music by Cesar Manzano is itself inoffensive, but is allowed to drown out the actors who have enough trouble speaking Walcott's dense poetic language. Few of the actors possess stage voices or vocal power. Most alternate between stage shouting and stage whispering, neither of which can be understood. Penelope (Linda Powell) is one exception. She has vocal control and the ability to modulate her voice, so that she not only can be heard, but what she says makes dramatic sense. Athena (Caralyn Kozlowski) makes a hash of her lines. Micheal Pemberton as Menelaus is a shouter, impossible to be understood. Sullivan Walker as the Cyclops is lively and properly menacing. The rest of the cast lacks the training to move about the stage while reciting epic poetry.

One could go on about the shortcomings of this production - the sets, the costumes are all a mess -- but instead, let us be reminded again of the beauty of the English language which, however imperfectly staged, can always be read. Walcott is a master wordsmith and deserves a second look, but this time on the page.

Written by Homer.
A stage version by Derek Walcott.
Director: Edward Berkeley.

Cast: John Bolger, Jim Butz, Michael Hunsaker, Caralyn Kozlowski, Liza Lapira, Novella Nelson, Chuck Patterson, Michael Pemberton, Andrew Polk, Linda Powell, Joanna Rhinehart, Adriana Sevan, Jed Sexton, Lou Sumrall, Sullivan Walker, Cornell Womack.
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt.
Costume Design: Hilary Rosenfeld.
Lighting Design: Matthew McCarthy.
Original Music: Cesar Manzano.
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Willow Cabin Theatre Company at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street, NY (212) 279-4200.
Opens 4/123/2001 thru 6/12/01. Tues. - Sat. at 8pm; Wed. & Sat. at 2pm; Sun. at 3pm.
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 5/8/02.

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