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Far From Homer
An updated, gender-switched retelling of The Odyssey works well when it focuses on familial relationships. But the epic? Fail
Boning up on your 8th-century B.C. Greek literature isn’t necessary to appreciate Melissa James Gibson’s A Current Nobody, receiving its Southern California premiere production courtesy of California Repertory Co.
But it sure couldn’t hurt.
Gibson’s freewheeling take on the epic poem by Homer (the blind, possibly apocryphal Greek poet, not the head of that family from Springfield) doesn’t turn The Odyssey on its head as much as dices it up and tosses it into a blender. There is still a wandering adventurer with a spouse desperately waiting at home, but it takes place in the present, features a photojournalist struggling to make it back from a war-torn front line, and includes photography and film in its telling.
That makes it easy to follow the story on its most obvious track. But there are still loads of references to things not often encountered by 21st-century humanoids, including a cyclops, messages from the gods and islands filled with lotus-eaters.
The modern take on a nearly 3,000-year-old tale isn’t the playwright’s only conceit. In A Current Nobody, it’s the wife who’s missing: Pen (short for Homer’s Penelope), an aggressively ambitious photojournalist who leaves her husband, Od, and their newborn baby, Tel, behind in their Ithaca condo for an assignment on the front lines of Troy. She’ll be gone, Od tells the baby, for two weeks, tops.
For the first half of the play, it seems that A Current Nobody is just a heartfelt domestic drama about people left behind in a time of war and confusion. Od (the effectively believable David Vegh) has to struggle with the weeks, months and years that his wife is gone, and we watch as Tel transforms from an infant into a 20-year-old (the older version played by an underutilized Jocelyn Hall).
The first major twist in this relatively straightforward drama—which is graced throughout by the New York-based Gibson’s trenchant wit, as well as director John Lang’s technically adventurous direction—is the arrival of an indie film crew at Od’s doorstep. Seems they’ve caught wind of a rumor that Pen has finally surfaced and want to capture the glorious homecoming.
The film crew decides to move into Od’s home and attempts to seduce him as he slowly begins to unravel at the prospect that his wife is off the map for good. (The seduction is a nod to the original: while Odysseus/Ulysses was off cavorting with sirens and a flesh-eating cyclops, Penelope was home in Ithaca, pestered by 108 of the city’s most suitable bachelors, all trying to convince her of her old man’s death in order to woo her.)
Then Pen (an ironically charming Sarah Underwood) finally surfaces—at a press conference where she recounts the litany of captivities and other travails that beset her on her extended sojourn.
The wacky, at times plaintive domestic drama now shifts into high-adventure mode, with Pen recounting her story and then trying to get home. This amps up the energy and excitement, but the play’s foundation crumbles: It’s no longer about Od and Tel and the missing mom/wife; it’s all about Pen and Bill (the very funny Arber Mehmeti, the couple’s dutiful doorman, who is a stand-in for the original’s Athena). That increases the white-knuckle intensity of the ride, but suddenly everything that’s happened up to that point—Od’s desperate longing, Tel’s confusion—seems irrelevant.
The questions that drive the first half of the play are mostly forgotten in the second part: Has Pen really been missing, or did she choose to go off the grid in order to find a great story? What was the nature of her and Od’s relationship? And why in the hell does the indie film crew want to have sex with Od?
If Gibson’s idea was to show that the personal tale of a wandering spouse still carries weight some 3,000 years later, she half-succeeds. The scenes between mother and daughter, as well as between husband and wife, are poignant and tension-riddled, but they seem tacked on after the excursion into epic. Ditto for her attempt to say there’s plenty of collateral damage that falls on people on the home front during war.
It’s not that the personal becomes unimportant by the play’s end, but the epic tangent devours the intimate moments, leaving the viewer hungry for something more. Ultimately, A Current Nobodyis a funny, frequently exhilarating retelling of perhaps the most epic journey of all, but one that doesn’t take the audience far enough.
A Current Nobody presented by California Repertory Co. at the Royal Theater,Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 985-5526; www.calrep.org. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. (No performances Thanksgiving week). Through Dec. 12. $16-$20.
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