UT stages an ‘Odyssey’ of the Eyes

UT stages an ‘Odyssey’ of the Eyes
Please don't go: Francesca Atian's Calypso needs a little help to hold Kailen Fleck's Odysseus in 'The Odyssey.'

The story’s old—seriously, like eons old—and obviously familiar to anyone whose memory of freshman English or that college World Lit class hasn’t faded into so much Memorex dust.

But we guarantee you’ve never, ever seen it told quite like this.

In director Heather Pickering’s hands, University Theater’s production of The Odyssey, Homer’s tale of Odysseus’s danger-filled, decade-long detour home from the Trojan War, has become a whirlwind of theatricality, with sights, sounds and spectacles that often dazzle the eyes. Unfortunately, the words and story structure don’t quite measure up to the production values.   

It’s always easy to forget that the story starts in the middle, with our hero (an intense and bearded Kailen Fleck) preparing to bail on Calypso (Francesca Atian), the nymph who’s been holding him since she saved him from a shipwreck. The action loops back toward the end of the first act, so we have to wait for the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, and the rest of the adventures.  

(Side note: It’s jarring to hear the cast place the emphasis so powerfully on the second syllable of Odysseus’s name. Maybe we’ve all been mispronouncing it our entire lives, but if that’s true, this is a stone-cold case of I don’t want to be right.)

Thanks to the always-awesome choreography of UW Dance professor Li Chiao-Ping, an arresting physicality rules a lot of the scenes, whether it’s the clan of black-clad suitors tumbling and swinging in like Cirque du Soleil vets, Athena (a radiant Kate Mann) “flying” by being bustled offstage by a fellow actor, or Atian’s Calypso clinging to Fleck, who’s twice her height, to slow his shipbuilding and delay his departure.  

Some of the set pieces are clever and impressive. A big white balloon, a huge crafted headpiece and a voice distorter turn Nathan Kluge into an imposing Polyphemus. A parachute—you know, the type you used to play around with in fifth-grade gym class—becomes the swirling mists of Hades that cough up and consume the spirit of Odysseus’s mother.

Those are the highlights. Other choices are more than a little bizarre and inconsistent. Poseidon (Sam Christian) and Hermes (Jeremy Mendoza) sport modern touches—the former carries a suitcase to complement his trident, while the latter rides a scooter and uses a cell phone—but Zeus (Nathan Kluge) and Athena are garbed more traditionally.

The troupe’s working off an adaptation by Mary Zimmerman that occasionally adds to the inconsistency. The inspired staging of the seductive sirens—dressing them in red robes and having them lure with a parody of the male fantasy of a submissive mate (“No, you just sit there; I’ll get it”)—is both hilarious and biting. It’s also unlike anything else in the play, which makes it feel completely out of place.

There are actually quite a few square pegs along the way here. One of Zimmerman’s recurring themes is the way women are both the key to Odysseus’s survival and disposable tools in the ancient Greeks’ patriarchal society. But the story of Nausicaa (a bubbly Megan Hofschulte), the Phaeacian princess who may have been the only woman to seriously tug at Big O’s heart, breezes by with minimal impact, even though it’s given ample stage time.

Even with no shortage of strong performances—Fleck and Mann are great, as is A. Christian Inouye as Odysseus’s son, Telemachus—the show ends up feeling disjointed, like a set of scenes that don’t quite give this story the epic feeling it deserves.

The Odyssey plays in the Mitchell Theatre through Sunday, November 16. For more information, visit theatre.wisc.edu

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the actress playing Nausicaa as Isabel Cuddihy. Megan Hofschulte played the role.