'A Current Nobody' Is Far From Homer

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 isnNt necessary to appreciate Melissa James GibsonNs A Current Nobody, receiving its Southern California premiere production courtesy of California Repertory Co.

But it sure couldnNt hurt.

GibsonNs freewheeling take on the epic poem by Homer (the blind, possibly apocryphal Greek poet, not the head of that family from Springfield) doesnNt 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 isnNt the playwrightNs only conceit. In A Current Nobody, itNs the wife whoNs missing: Pen (short for HomerNs 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. SheNll 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 GibsonNs trenchant wit, as well as director John LangNs technically adventurous direction—is the arrival of an indie film crew at OdNs doorstep. Seems theyNve caught wind of a rumor that Pen has finally surfaced and want to capture the glorious homecoming.

The film crew decides to move into OdNs 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 cityNs most suitable bachelors, all trying to convince her of her old manNs 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 playNs foundation crumbles: ItNs no longer about Od and Tel and the missing mom/wife; itNs all about Pen and Bill (the very funny Arber Mehmeti, the coupleNs dutiful doorman, who is a stand-in for the originalNs Athena). That increases the white-knuckle intensity of the ride, but suddenly everything thatNs happened up to that point—OdNs desperate longing, TelNs 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 OdNs relationship? And why in the hell does the indie film crew want to have sex with Od?

If GibsonNs 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 thereNs plenty of collateral damage that falls on people on the home front during war.

ItNs not that the personal becomes unimportant by the playNs 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 doesnNt 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 N 8 p.m. (No performances Thanksgiving week). Through Dec. 12. $16-$20.

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