The gang's all here: Zeus and Athena. Poseidon and Hermes. Greek gods whose stories we have heard all our lives. And of course Odysseus, the world's first action hero. Odysseus, the creation of Homer, a poet who in all likelihood could neither read nor write. But what an imagination. Not even Guillermo del Toro on his most creative day can surpass Homer's unquenchable flights of fancy. You know the tale(s): Odysseus spends ten years in exile after the Trojan War warding off sultry sirens and outsmarting multiple Cyclopes in his desire to return home to his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. As chronicled in The Odyssey, this epic journey extends over land and sea and takes us into Hell itself.
The adaptation that has been staged by Donna Northcutt at St. Louis Shakespeare is the work of Mary Zimmerman, who is best known for her sassy rethinking of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Zimmerman developed The Odyssey as a thesis production when she was a graduate student at Northwestern University, then put it aside for more than a decade. After her commercial success with Ovid, she returned to Homer.
We can see the roots of Zimmerman's breezy, anachronistic style here. Hermes, the messenger, rides a bicycle as if he's a Western Union delivery boy. In Zimmerman's playful vernacular, Odysseus can toss out a contemporary rejoinder like "Don't you get it?" But then she will write a line like this one that the Cyclops hurls at Odysseus — "You must be from the other end of nowhere" — that is so startling as to be worthy of poet Robert Fitzgerald, from whose translation Zimmerman worked.
The play opens in an especially inviting way. A girl in a lawn chair falls asleep from boredom while trying to trudge through a paperback copy of The Odyssey. As she nods off, she becomes Athena, goddess of war, constant friend and protector of Odysseus. Is this merely a clever way to make a costume change? Or is Zimmerman suggesting that there is a godliness in all of us when we allow our imaginations free rein? The question lingers as the evening proceeds.
We're indulging in mythology here, and it is refreshingly irreverent. Mythology predates theology, and the restrictive codifying that came with organized religion. (As Joseph Campbell once noted, "You find an awful lot of laws in the Old Testament.") By contrast, these gods seem like a carefree crowd. All who inhabit The Odyssey — gods and humans alike — are fun people to watch, surprising and spontaneous.
A persuasive argument could be made that Athena is actually the principal character. In addition to being a leading player, she is often the narrator. As Athena, Lauren Summers is a sensual goddess who also enjoys being Daddy's girl (understandable when your father is Zeus). It's not so much the specifics of her performance that impress, as it is the aura she conveys. The three-hour playing time never drags when Summers is onstage.
Ben Ritchie's Odysseus comes off as a really nice guy. He's not Conan the Barbarian. You want muscle-bound intensity? Watch Kirk Douglas in the 1954 Italian film Ulysses. Ritchie impresses most as a loving husband, father and son. There's no hubris in his performance, so it's easy to root for him. Everyone else in the twenty-person cast plays multiple roles. (As Circe, Suki Peters is a fetching enchantress in that red wig.)
Although the stage is often cluttered with bodies (living and dead), the evening concludes as quietly as it began. When Odysseus tells a peasant girl he has returned home from the sea, she asks a question of haunting simplicity: "What is the sea?" And so at the end, as it was at the beginning, we are sent out into the night to ponder the unknowable.