The annual pilgrimage to Ashland began this year with an epic production (3 hours 20 minutes, just as promised in the playbill) of The Odyssey, adapted from the Robert Fitzgerald translation by director Mary Zimmerman. I can’t comment just now on the technical or literary quality of the adaptation — though I will be looking in at the Tudor Guild in the morning to see if OSF has printed one of its limited-run editions of the production script. What I can tell you is that this is live theater at its most basic — and therefore its most risky. With nearly bare sets and a very few technical effects — most very simple and striking — it’s wholly up to the actors to determine whether the show will succeed brilliantly, or fall catastrophically on its face.
This being the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, home of one of the strongest acting companies anywhere in North America, what we get is about 95% brilliance. This is one of the most vocally clear shows I’ve ever heard in the Elizabethan theater; the dead simplicity of the staging ensures that nothing gets in the way of the actors’ words. Also — or perhaps especially — several effective set pieces omit dialogue almost entirely in favor of crisp, sharp choreography. I was particularly impressed with a sequence in which Odysseus’ beleaguered and starving crew is seduced into capturing and slaughtering a “lamb”, thereby ensuring their own destruction in turn.
The exception — at least for me — is Christiana Clark’s Athena, whose vocal delivery is by turns both too forceful and too forced, coming across as grade-school speech-reading rather than nuanced storytelling or characterization. It’s clear both from Clark’s overall performance and the staging that this is a deliberate stylistic choice, and very likely reflects Mary Zimmerman’s directorial vision as much as Clark’s take on the character. Fortunately, Clark’s physical performance fits into the show far more seamlessly than her speech, and this is really the only off-note in an otherwise compelling production. Yes, it’s long — but then, odysseys in general are supposed to be long, and this one is the original that defines the term.
Overall, it’s definitely a promising start to a crowded weekend.