The Odyssey

It doesn’t look promising: The abstract set pieces made of welded metal, the fact that BYU’s Margetts Theatre is often home to “experimental” (read: “weird”) plays.

The fact that you’re about to watch Homer’s “Odyssey,” for crying out loud.

Then the jazzy music starts, the narrator comes out smartly dressed in a pantsuit and sunglasses, and Zeus strides onstage bellowing into her — yes, her — cellphone. This is not your father’s “Odyssey.”

Director Eric Samuelsen, who made the obscure Danish comedy “Erasmus Montanus” accessible on this very stage last summer, has succeeded again, this time with a story that is more famous, but still unfamiliar to many.

“The Odyssey” follows the journeys of Odysseus (Cristian Bell) as he heads home to Ithaca after fighting the wars described in “The Iliad” (to which “The Odyssey” is a sequel). Along the way he is shipwrecked (losing his clothes in the process — at any other college, Bell would be buck naked; here he gets to keep a tiny pair of Spandex shorts), almost devoured by a Cyclops, and lured into bed by many a lustful goddess.

Meanwhile, his wife Penelope (Rachel Rawlins) sits and frets in Ithaca, warding off aggressive suitors who somehow have the run of her house and are fond of pestering the servant ladies. The first act ends with Odysseus’ return to Ithaca; the second act shows him getting revenge on the boorish suitors via killing them.

Bell is the only cast member to play just one role, and his Odysseus is sympathetic and likable. He is upstaged, however, by the talented crew of nine actresses who play the 30-odd other roles, including the male ones. Little attempt is made to have the women look like men; Zeus and others are still called “he” and “him,” even though the people playing them are quite clearly women.

The ensemble’s standout performer is Jannah Ferguson. Her characters all zing with energy, and her facial expressions — easily seen in the small Margetts Theatre — give each god and goddess she plays real personality.

Also noteworthy are Dianna Lynne Errico (who plays Zeus with flair), Jennifer Conway (her male characters satirize that gender perfectly), and Rachel Rawlins (whose role as sweet Penelope is almost surpassed by her turn as the disgusting Cyclops).

Though a few modern elements are used, this is not a modern telling of the story. Traditional robes and masks are often worn, and the language of Robert Fagles’ translation is not especially modern (but neither is it archaic). No attempt has been made to have the unfathomable traditions of the ancient Greeks seem realistic to us.

It would have been easy to make this a parody of Homer’s “Odyssey”; trust me, mocking is easy. And it wouldn’t have been too hard to make it a faithful, erudite show that only the most high-falutin’ audience members would have enjoyed. This production is somewhere in between: It respects Homer’s work without bowing down and worshipping it, as some literature professors would have you do. Liberties are taken: There are several random accents tossed in (Poseidon is Jamaican, for example), Helen looks like a Geisha girl, “ambrosia” is represented by Hershey’s Kisses, and the women who find the naked Odysseus on the beach are giggly caricatures of the teen-agers you’d see in a “Titanic” audience.

And yet, none of these variations indicate an attempt to dumb down the story. They do make it more accessible to ’90s audiences, but you still have to pay close attention to keep all the characters straight. It’s not exactly Homer’s “Odyssey,” but it’s not quite Homer Simpson’s, either.

Furthermore, the changes don’t detract from the story’s theme. At its heart, this is a story about a man who just wants to survive the world and get home again. For all its ancientness and foreignness, the story delivers this idea loud and clear.

“The Odyssey” is quirky and odd, artistic and aloof — and yet somehow down-to-earth, too. It doesn’t pander to the audience, nor does it condescend. It occasionally falls into the “weird just for the sake of being weird” rut, but not often. Overall, the play tells a story with humor, creativity and conviction.

This had the potential to be a really awkward review. You see, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" opened at BYU a week after "The Odyssey," and the two casts had to share a makeup room for the 10 days that the runs overlapped. The awkwardness? I was in "Midsummer" (a small part: Egeus, Hermia's father). If I had given "The Odyssey" a negative review, it could have made for some uncomfortable moments in the makeup room, with the other cast members glaring at me and perhaps putting harsh chemicals in my foundation.

Fortunately, I didn't realize when I saw "The Odyssey" that we'd be sharing the makeup room, so that fact didn't influence my review. And also fortunately, the show was wonderful.

I find it interesting that the Greek goddesses were so interested in having sex with Odysseus. And since it was "Fate" that made it happen, it was OK for Odysseus to go along with it. Can you imagine the scene when he got home? Odysseus stumbles through the door, reeking of Calliope. "Aw, come on, Penelope, I couldn't help it. It was Fate!"

This review is rather lengthy, and the Daily Herald cut some when they printed it. The thing is, no one had ever told me how long I should make these things, and I had so much to say about "The Odyssey." But this one finally did it: My editor finally gave me a length limit. Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted.

Another note: Cristian Bell, who played the often-naked Odysseus here, later joined the Garrens Comedy Troupe under my direction. We kidded him endlessly about having been so naked in "The Odyssey," and made sure he never reprised the role in a Garrens show.