Penelope’s Odyssey after Homer
by Gary Graves, in collaboration with the ensemble
at Central Works
Jan Zvaifler as Penelope
(Photo by Jay Yamada)
Another member of the Critics Circle recommended this production, about the Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view (a popular theatrical topic this season), and I can see why. Central Works operates in an intimate, elongated thrust (my favorite type of space), situating its audience members so close to the action that they could trip the actors. This orientation obviates the need for presentation. Actors are afforded more interesting (and realistic) angles of interaction, and they need not amplify their physicalities for the back of a house. Each subtle gesture (or deliberate non-gesture) registers. You hold your breath, that you might hear the actors’ breathing.
The play itself, what’s more, moves along at a steady clip and constantly throws its players into impossible situations: Should Penelope (elegantly played by Jan Zvaifler) take a new husband, now that Odysseus has been missing ten years? How can Antinus (Matt Lai), her leading suitor, win her heart? Is he even worthy? Can Telemakos, (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) Penelope’s son/daughter, trust Penelope to do the right thing for their family? Is the man who later comes forward as Odysseus (Terry Lamb) really he? More importantly, who gets to make that decision, and who will benefit from the verdict?
Graves' writing constantly challenges the audience’s trust; we are never aligned with a single character for long. The title, and much of the action, suggests that Penelope is the protagonist, but by the play’s end even she has ulterior motives that complicate her reliability.
With only a few (but gorgeous) light and sound cues, by director John Patrick Moore, to guide the audience, these actors are truly on their own in this tiny space, their every breath and blink on full display. Under this pressure, some performers bring clearer and more honest performances than others, but the company on the whole is to be commended for producing an engaging evening on a shoestring budget.