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STAGE REVIEW

An inspired journey in this 'Odyssey'

Jennifer Johnson and John Peitso as Penelope and Odysseus. Jennifer Johnson and John Peitso as Penelope and Odysseus. (larry volk)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / February 25, 2009
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An impossibly bright full moon creates a glow around a 15-foot rowboat on the stage of the Charlestown Working Theater. Inside the boat are two people, Odysseus and Penelope of Homer's ancient epic "The Odyssey," adapted and performed by Charlestown Working Theater codirectors Jennifer Johnson and John Peitso, a husband-and-wife team.

Without ever leaving the rowboat, and with the simplest of theatrical techniques, Johnson and Peitso take the audience on a haunting and hypnotic version of Odysseus' journey, from Calypso's enchanted island past the dangerous sirens into the man-hating clutches of Circe, and beyond. The adventure is full of dreamy fragments and beautiful snatches of Peitso's original and adapted music, adding up to a story rich in longing and desire.

This hourlong adaptation of the epic includes excerpts from poems by Louise Gluck, T.S. Eliot, and Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegria, with music inspired by the Finnish poem "The Kalavala." Rather than overwhelm the story, the mix of different voices complements Johnson and Peitso's imaginative and creative approach. Peitso's performances on harmonica, concertina, hammered dulcimer, and penny whistle also add to the feeling of an exotic trip to many different lands.

Much of the charm of this "Odyssey" comes from the low-tech effects that help introduce us to the many characters Odysseus encounters, including the Cyclops, simply and effectively created with a flashlight; a voodoo priestess who throws down shells like Tarot cards and whose face is a skull; and Circe, whose transformation of men into pigs is seen via shadow puppetry through the ship's sail.

The journey past the sirens is represented by Odysseus hanging upside down from a rope ladder as he calls out to the sirens, begging for news of his loved ones. Johnson and Peitso also use shadow puppets and a small doll-like figure to represent Odysseus at certain moments, and each of their choices brings us closer to the journey and the struggle.

Even though the pair are confined by the edges of the boat, they can feel miles apart, especially when Penelope stands at the prow writing a letter of despair and release to her long-lost husband. As she rolls up the paper, it crackles and crumbles as if her marriage, like the paper, were turning to dust.

But the most inspiring touch in this adaptation is the rowboat, decorated with shells and netting, which rocks and spins, becomes a cave and a cliff. With only a simple lighting change and some low-key sound effects (especially creepy is the sound of buzzing flies, suggesting death and decay), the mood shifts again and again, and we can almost smell the salt air of the open sea, with its storms and monsters that seduce and ensnare Odysseus on his long trip home.

The ending of the piece is a little abrupt (Odysseus's complicated reunion with Penelope might be difficult to untangle within the confines of the rowboat), but when the two reach out to each other and join hands to keep the rowboat rocking rhythmically, the strength of that contact is palpable. "The Odyssey" is an evocative adventure that manages to capture the sweep of a long and complicated journey as well as the intimate nature of a relationship.

THE ODYSSEY

Based on the poem by Homer

Created, designed, and performed by Jennifer Johnson and John Peitso. Lights, sound, and masks, Jill Comer.

At: Charlestown Working Theater through Feb. 28. Tickets: $15.

866-811-4111,

www.charlestownworkingtheater.org.

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