Homer wrote, “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns,” and the Aquila Theatre Company decided to take it quite literally in its Jan. 28 production of “The Odyssey” at Hillsdale College. Muddling the line between a dramatic production, musical theater, and a Sparknotes summary of “The Odyssey,” Aquila confused its audience members.
Aquila’s adaptation of Emily Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey,” directed by Desiree Sanchez, tried to deliver a powerful, modernized message of the traumas of warfare and how it affects those soldiers who come home.
This focus is taken from Aquila’s work with the veterans in The Warrior Chorus program, a noble cause that aims to “train members of the veteran community in leading discussion groups based around ancient Greek works.” But though the effort and message were noble, the production fell short.
With its six actors playing 18 different characters, character transitions were confusing.
And then there was the singing.
Within five minutes of the actors coming on stage, Athena, played by Maggie McMeans, broke into song asking an Olympian god (perhaps Zeus, but the character transition made it difficult to tell if it was him or Hephaestus) why Odysseus was being tortured and kept from home.
As Athena’s song kept going, it felt that perhaps Aquila was about to turn “The Odyssey” into a musical theater production. But then the singing abruptly ended and dramatic, Sparknote-esque summarizing of Odysseus’ journey began.
The majority of Odysseus’ speech summarizing his journey took place in the befuddling surroundings of the Phaeacians’ island, where the king, queen, and their subjects assumed an aggressive demeanor and egregious Southern accents. Then suddenly there was another song bursting forth from Demodocus, played by Reece Richardson. Though the song tried to soulfully and emotionally paint a picture of the hardships of warriors and their return home from war, it fell short and only succeeded in raising the question: is this production supposed to be a musical or a play?
At the end of the song, Odysseus began to summarize his tale of woe. Though many of the tales of Odysseus’ journey are powerful and would have been the perfect platform to relay the message a soldier’s struggle to come home, Aquila was content with making his adventures a blurred summary. Skipping over important events such as Odysseus’ near death experiences with Scylla and Charybdis and the sirens, and then his discontentment with Circe and Calypso, Aquila missed opportunities to provide a sobering picture of a veteran’s trauma in coming home.
After a drive-by summation of Odysseus’ journey, Odysseus suddenly arrived at home. Once he revealed himself to Eumaeus (Richardson) and his son Telemachus (Cassidy), Penelope, played by Hannah Sinclair Robinson, suddenly took the spotlight with very long, somewhat irrelevant speeches. If the production had been the full recitation of Homer’s epic, then Penelope’s speeches drawn directly from Homer would have not been out of place. But after shabbily summarizing some of the most important moments of the text, Penelope’s musings about her dreams and her repetitive reflections on her own sorrow felt random and ill-placed.
Once Penelope ended her long-winded contemplations, when it was finally time for the climactic slaughtering of the swaggering suitors who disturbed her, Aquila fell drastically short of producing a satisfactory climax and ending. With only one suitor to kill and an unconvincing fight scene that led up to his death, Aquila seemed to have misunderstood that Homer’s climax was the slaughter of the suitors. The ending wrapped up so quickly that it felt incomplete.
Though Aquila attempted to highlight how war affects warriors and their homecoming, the most significant takeaway of the production was confusion. Between the musical outbursts, rough character transitions, deplorable accents, and oddly selected speeches, the whole energy and emotion of the play felt contrived and difficult to follow.
The effect this play had on its audience was to make them lost and confused, like Odysseus.