I was in one of those late night conversations with some theater friends that had entered the realms of pure theory. We were trying to decide what the live stage offered that was superior to the marvels of technology employed by movies, with their fantastic CGI imagery and 3D and digital sound and budgets that could support a hundred professional playhouses. A scenic designer opined that the audience participation in creating imaginary reality on stage was much more powerfully engaging than simply sitting there looking at an image that had been created for you. An actor said she thought that the direct encounter of one human being with another in real time and real space was what made theater special. We nodded agreement, but with a shadow of doubt that we had really found the distinction that made theater irreplaceable. After some silence, a playwright said, “No other medium has ever, or will ever, speak so well. The human voice delivering careful text cannot make contact so directly, so emotionally and so powerfully as it can from the stage. The stage tells a story better than anything else.”
That old discussion came to mind while watching Taproot Theatre's production of Mary Zimmerman's theatricalization of Homer's “The Odyssey.” Originally spoken and sung by a single speaker around 800 BC, recounting legendary events four hundred years before that, it is still dependent upon the voice of a single man, Odysseus, to recount his epic journey across uncharted seas in the company of gods and monsters to return to his home and family. Zimmerman suggests spectacular events with minimal stagecraft, so that we are required to create the reality of a great storm at sea sent by the fury of Zeus, or men turned into pigs by an enchantress, or a dozen men killed by a single arrow from a terrible bow. Above all, we have the voice of the man who experienced all this to bring us into the immediacy, the danger and excitement of his voyage.
Mark Chamberlin has that voice and presence to bring authority and authenticity to Odysseus, and director Scott Nolte has the expertise to make the theatrical experience convincing. The result is a fully satisfying evening of great storytelling that feels as contemporary as hearing the tale from your next door neighbor, and elegant for its belief in our ability to create imaginary reality. A solid ensemble with each actor playing multiple roles kept the characters distinct and the vast expanse of distant lands and other worlds comprehensible. When the audience occasionally laughed at some piece of stagecraft, say the laying of a few sticks of bamboo to represent a seagoing raft, it was in recognition that this was their turn to create the theatrical experience, and the reward would come in later moments when the long delayed father returns to his son, and we bring all that history, all our creation that is now just the ephemera of history to their very real and emotional reunion.
To be sure, this is truly an ensemble piece, but some performers deserve special note. Nikki Visal was introduced as a most disconnected modern reader of the tale, until the muse transports her (and us) into the visceral immediacy of the story. As Athena she was also graceful, substantial and elegant enough to be a goddess. Nolan Palmer had perhaps the greatest range of characters, from the great and angry god Zeus to a common sailor, and neatly defined each of his roles. Randy Scholz brought a fine sense of character to Telemachus, son of Odysseus, making the boy a worthy progeny of a great hero whose absence defined his childhood. Pam Nolte, Stephen Grenley and April Wolfe were also very effective in their diverse characters.
For me, the most surprising thing about this production of a very familiar story was how fresh and engaging it was. The action was swift and the evening moved on a momentum as relentless as the great waves at sea, the importance of each event and each character emphasized with just the right weight. It is remarkable that one of our most ancient stories should still be so immediate and feel so contemporary, but the credit for that must go to the strength of the performance and, above all, to the way the story was told. That is, ultimately, the unique power of live theater.