‘Of the Earth’ Blurs Fantasy and Reality

Jon Tracy presents the second installment of his Odyssey.


Jon Tracy is Bay Area theater’s equivalent to a celebrity auteur. He’s quick, prolific, careful with words, a voracious reader, and a judicious editor. All of those qualities come into play in The Salt Plays, a two-part Trojan War series that Tracy wrote and directed in collaboration with the Shotgun Players. The first installment, In the Wound, premiered at John Hinkel Park this summer, featuring a bulky cast of 35 — enough for a Greek army. That play followed the entire Trojan War from Odysseus’ point of view, focusing on the events that seemed most important to Tracy. He read the text through a modern lens, extruding details and drawing connections to modern current events. His Iliad chronicled a journey, but it also looked at morality, gender roles, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and the psychology of war. That all came through naturally, Tracy said. “The things that we’re dealing with now are a different construction of what we’ve been dealing with forever.”

Chapter 2 arrives this week, with a slimmer cast and a reversed gender ratio. (Six women and two men, as opposed to the five women and thirty men of In the Wound). Called Of the Earth, it takes place in a liminal space between ancient Greece and World War II, which feels simultaneously contemporary and historical. As is often the case in Tracy’s work, there’s a nagging suggestion that perhaps none of this is real. Actors bang drums, swing from fifteen-foot poles, and speak in a way that helps bury their agendas. The whole thing could be an extension of Odysseus’ mind, Tracy says. “There is a space that is cast about quite a bit in Part One called ‘the Green Room,'” he explained. “It’s a place that Odysseus sees in his head very often.” This time around, audience members will enter the theater and see a big green room. It’s purposefully disorienting. “There’s a lot of decisions the audience has to make as to what the Green Room is, and how literal it is,” Tracy said.

By blurring fantasy and reality, Tracy unburdens himself of the pressures that plague any reinterpreter of Greek texts. He can meditate on the theme of war without having to moralize. He can explore juicy plot-points that only get glancing mention in the source material. He can use sight gags, spectacular illusions, and modern technology to tell a story. Most importantly, he can introduce modern concepts of redemption and atonement, which might have seemed foreign to Greek society — where all things lay in the lap of the gods. “I’ve taken much license to create my own mythology,” Tracy confessed, explaining that he feels no compunction about sending Greek myth through the filter of magical realism. There’s not any word-for-word extractions from the source, he said, but the underlying ideas are all there. Some are obfuscated. Others are heightened. Of the Earth runs December 2 through January 16 at The Ashby Stage (1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley). $17-$30. ShotgunPlayers.org