Quantum Theatre’s “An Odyssey” soars in spirited re-telling

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Quantum Theatre presents An Odyssey by Jay Ball, directed by Jed Allen Harris, Schenley Park Ice Skating Rink through Sept. 5, 2021.

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THE FIRST THING to realize about Quantum Theatre’s An Odyssey is that it is not a standard re-staging of The Odyssey, the epic adventure fable written 28 centuries ago by the Greek poet Homer (or a collaboration of contemporary talecrafters, as modern scholars believe).

An Odyssey is an entirely fresh re-telling of the ancient classic through the voice of Nausicaa, young princess of Phaeacia, whose retinue discovers the nearly dead Odysseus lying on the beach, shipwrecked after a decade-long struggle to return from the Trojan War to his wife and family in Ithaca. Nausicaa treats the humbled warrior-king with courtesy and consideration, taking him to her father, King Alcinous, for safe passage to Ithaca.

But first, Nausicaa insists on hearing his adventures, which form the heart of the original saga. Utilizing her handmaidens and an occasional figment of his fevered imagination, Odysseus vividly re-enacts his encounters with Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens and his desperate visit to Hades in search of the prophet Tiresias.

The Odyssey is usually characterized as a “hero’s quest”, yet Odysseus is more than anything an incredibly lucky survivor of debacles and not so much a kindhearted, noble hero. His name, in fact, derives from odyssasthai — “to be angry, be grieved, to grumble”, one who exhibits a general demeanor of hostility and brings capital-T Trouble wherever they appear.

Though cunning and bold to the point of recklessness, Odysseus is far from an attractive role model. During the Trojan War, he leads the brutal sack of Ismarus and then Troy, has a perverse fondness for poisoned arrows, traumatizes his family with his prolonged absence and, after slaughtering his wife’s 108 suitors, orders the women and other servants who had attended the suitors to be murdered as well (and only after they’d cleaned the massacre scene).

Both The Iliad and The Odyssey depict earthly existence as savage, capricious and mostly unjust. Yet, as a stand-in for humanity, Odysseus endures with a fortitude honed by innate aggression and moral equivocacy.

That may be the true Dramatic Question posed by the tale as conceived by its original authors. Is this how humans find the stamina to continue living in a world that offers death by the minute?

It’s a serious topic, but An Odyssey playwright Jay Ball employs comedy rather than dramatic realism to suggest answers. Cast members exuberantly break the theatrical Fourth Wall even before the play starts, leading spectators in song, cheers and The Wave.

This deliberate audience engagement is useful not just for setting the story’s light tone but anchoring attention as the action moves across a vast performing area covering almost the entire 200 x 85-feet rink space.

Throughout the 110-minute, single-act show skillfully directed by Jed Allen Harris, the entire 7-member cast of An Odyssey exhibits stellar ensemble work. Shammen McCune, Nancy McNulty and Grace Vensel take on multiple roles as Nausicaa’s maids, Odysseus’ crew and the duplicitous Siren trio, providing charming and seamless continuity to the narrative flow.

As Odysseus, Sam Turich effectively weaves a volatile mix of bravura, grit and belated self-awareness. Erika Strasburg’s Nausicaa adeptly evolves from spoiled royal teen to genuine wisdom figure, the conscience Odysseus has long lacked. Catherine Gowl dynamically inhabits both the seductive allure of Circe and the quietly composed dignity of Penelope. Sam Lothard excels as a pitiable Polyphemus, waggish Hermes and beneficent King Alcinous.

In Homer’s Greece, as with many longago civilizations, it was believed the departed soul lives on in the world and can profoundly affect our life fortunes. The Odyssey remains relevant today because it encourages us to apply this two-dimensional parallel perspective when appraising our own daily actions.

Quantum Theatre’s An Odyssey proposes that, like Odysseus, we may not always find it easy to look closely and truthfully at ourself. But when we finally do, the chances of finding our true home may greatly increase.

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* An Odyssey runs through Sept. 5, 2021 (ticket info here).

* Quantinuum, the 2021 Q Ball fundraiser takes place at Kingfly Spirits, Sat. Oct. 9, 7:00 p.m. celebrating the theatre’s 30th anniversary (ticket info here).