Terrific, Witty Turn on a Classic — See “An Odyssey”!

At the Fringe, a small new company can take a shot at staging a classic. Better yet, they can twist it, shift its elements (e.g., gender, era, outcome) and turn it on its head. Best of all, this creative reshaping can sometimes let new light emerge from an old lamp, breaking out from underneath its dusty patina.

This is happening to Homer right now; at the Asylum, An Odyssey is bursting the bonds of the ancient epic. Playwright Patrick Denney twists the 3,000-year-old tale into something new, yet sharply wise. And the Ungovernable Theatre Company gives it a simple, smart production as fresh (and darkly funny) as Comedy Central riffing on the day’s news.

(art: Carolina Montenegro)

We first meet Austin Kottkamp’s remarkable, apparently artless set. It puts us in an Army base housing unit, all prepared for a “welcome home” party. Torn paper letters droop on a clothesline; comical, until we learn they’ve been there for years. A dog sits disconsolately by the trash can.

Penelope, the soldier’s wife, uses songs and slogans and spousal support groups, makeup and a summer dress and coffee (and at times something stronger), trying to be ready for when “O” returns.  Her son, “T,” an Eagle Scout, eagerly scans the horizon while sharing  photos and deeds of his famous father. Whom he’s never known.

Then we meet the dog. Argos loves “O” completely, incapable of second thoughts or doubts. This simplicity is charming, and it’s the source of Argos’ fidelity (which Homer uses for a single touching scene). But it also means Argos can’t be talked out of what s/he observes — so the dog’s view becomes ours, the ground on which the story stands, the soil from which its ironic wit grows.

And this play is rich in irony. (Is it a coincidence that “T,” meeting us half-clad, whips out an iron to press his shorts? I think not.) Many artists are adapting classical stories as America’s empire crumbles, letting things said about Athens or Rome or Scotland resonate with double meaning for our time. Denney’s Odyssey is a quiet domestic scene — no battlefields, no corridors of power — yet its echoes for our imperial age are fierce (and often funny; we wince as we laugh).

Yes, this Odyssey is a quiet domestic scene. It doesn’t take us to Troy (or Iraq or Afghanistan), to the royal palace (or the Pentagon), nor  to whatever places have detoured “O’s” homeward journey. It’s an odyssey that never leaves home (irony, anyone?).

This, I believe, is Denney’s greatest stroke — boldly, brilliantly, his adapter’s axe has cut away 95% of The Odyssey, leaving us a single focus. (The108  suitors for Penelope’s hand, who are the dramatic heart of Homer’s “home” scenes, are gone. Gone, too, is the tapestry she weaves by day and unweaves by night — there’s just an ever-growing stack of photo albums.)

Denney’s bold reshaping also turns the Odyssey (of all texts!) into a feminist story, centered in the heart and hearth. All the battle and bluster of The Iliad are reduced to  a handful of newspaper scraps; the wandering male libido that powered Odysseus’ picaresque epic comes down to the only thing that matters to his family — absence.

An Odyssey is a remarkable work, perhaps even a great one. It is enhanced by Turner Munch’s spare, forceful direction (no movement is unmotivated, no focus ever dropped), Catherine Elrod’s sly, clear  costuming, and Maxwell Denney’s quietly evocative score.

Julia Davis brings unflagging drive and variety to harried Penelope. Joe DeSoto’s Telemachus grabs us and holds us close, through all his growing pains and permutations (clown school is a great place to learn acting).

But the crowning achievement — in writing and in performance — is Argos. Making the undeceivable dog our narrative center is genius. Carolina Montenegro matches this with genius of her own. Looking like a giant muppet, rooted to one spot, she nonetheless manages to carry the show. Using a vocal range like a clarinet, and quiet gestures every canine lover knows, she delivers an astonishing tour de force of the actor’s art — wry, riveting, hilarious, and (yes, Homer) ultimately heartbreaking. When Argos falls, our world has ended.

An Odyssey, written while Denney was at UC Santa Cruz, is a helluva thing for a student to pull off. But hey, Mendelssohn, at 17, turned Midsummer Night’s Dream into music in a way no other composer has ever surpassed. So let’s just be glad we have this play — and for heaven’s sake, tear up your schedule if you have to and go see it! (Should the seats run out, as they will, leave your  name and email for any extensions — this play should make many “Best of the Fringe” lists.)
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An Odyssey, by Patrick Denney, directed by Turner Munch.
Presented by the Ungovernable Theatre Company, at Theatre Asylum’s Studio C, 6448 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

June 15 (Friday) at 7:00,
June 23 (Saturday) at 7:30.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5093> .