Reimaginings of Greek myth have become a staple in the Oakland-Berkeley theater scene, from last year’s spate of Orestias to the multiple versions of Antigone, all conceived to mirror our current war overseas. The timing of Central Works‘ latest, Penelope’s Odyssey After Homer, also seems apropos. In this one, the war is just a backstory. It actually opens ten years later. Odysseus (Terry Lamb) has been MIA for a decade. In the meantime, his daughter Telemakos (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) inexplicably has become a man. His wife, Penelope (Jan Zvaifler), has fallen prey to fifty suitors, who turned her kitchen into a massive squat-house, where they eat all her food and drink all her wine. By setting the story there, writer Gary Graves and director John Patrick Moore attempt to tell a story of male carnage and debauchery from a female point of view.
That’s a smart editorial decision, since it makes for an entirely different kind of odyssey. In fact, the word “odyssey” doesn’t really apply anymore. It’s really a kitchen-sink drama. In the first scene, Telemakos gets snitty with his mother’s main suitor, Antinus (Matt Lai), who insists that Odysseus must be dead. When Penelope emerges, clad in a long green frock and dark sunglasses, she already looks like a tragic heroine. We know from the way Antinus pursues Penelope that she’s still a sexpot, by Greek standards, even though Zvaifler paints her as a rather inscrutable character. She seems proud, but easily becomes an accomplice in her own exploitation. She moves around the room with a kind of glacial elegance. She’s emotionally unavailable, but alluring nonetheless.
Zvaifler, who co-founded Central Works in 1991, isn’t the only unorthodox casting choice in this play. Lai isn’t your typical Lothario, either. He’s small, insistent, and relatively non-threatening — someone who probably has an easier time winning battles with words than with brute force. Yet, Lai is the most magnetic actor in this production. He knows how to woo Penelope, even if she seems flummoxed by his overtures. He’s a world away from Mbele-Mbong, who is lovely to look at but makes a rather wooden Telemakos. Lamb provides a burst of energy as the long-lost, more-than-slightly deranged Odysseus, but he overplays the role a bit.
Despite the improbable pairings, Graves’ script is fascinating enough to jerk the story forward. On the surface, it’s a canonical Greek tragedy that many of us know from reading Homer — or the Cliffs Notes version thereof. But it’s also about other issues: spinsterdom, middle-age, gender-bending, domestic battles, post-traumatic stress syndrome. Zvaifler isn’t always believable as Penelope, but she’s great at being arrogantly single and proudly dismissive, even on the cusp of middle-age. Odysseus appears toward the end of the first act, shipwrecked, lost, disheveled, probably famished, and unable to makes heads or tails of his surroundings. Lamb has to communicate these things to the audience without revealing his identity.
With only four actors at their disposal, Graves and Moore made a lot of the action happen offstage. The fifty suitors are implied. Sound designer Gregory Scharpen uses foreign-language rap music and heavy dance beats to symbolize all the mayhem they create. Characters are burdened with long swaths of exposition. Midway through the first act, Telemakos attends a party at the home of King Menelaus, where he hears word of his father’s shipwreck and survival. Mbele-Mbong describes the whole incident in flashback. Apparently, it was one hell of a party — naked people, guests painted gold, enough wine to fill a swimming pool, aristocrats with horns on their heads, dancing, orgies, and other X-rated behavior. That would be a hard scene to depict on a small stage. But I wish Central Works had given it a shot anyway. Show-not-tell is a credo at most theaters, but for this company, telling seems to be the norm.
Things pick up in the second act, when Odysseus finally makes it home. Dirty, stinky, and bearded, he shambles up to Penelope’s doorstep like a homeless person without his shopping cart. He has a daunting task before him: First, find favor with daughter-turned-son Telemakos. Second, win Penelope back, and prevail over the fifty suitors. Third, reinstall himself as man of the house. All easier said than done. That’s where the play gets interesting.
It’s odd that local theater companies have such a sweet tooth for Greek myth, considering how hard it is to stage most of these stories. They’re full of tortuous plot twists, divine interventions, and precipitous shifts in time and space. In most cases, the concept outstrips the execution. Yet Penelope’s Odyssey is a noble pursuit for a company like Central Works. Graves made a smart choice in rendering the play as a domestic drama, rather than an epic. That’s the only way to do an odyssey with limited resources.