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Georgia Shakespeare's Odyssey struggles with contemporary themes

Joe Knezevich soldiers on through the production with a standout performance as Odysseus

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In the early scenes of Georgia Shakespeare's new production, actor Joe Knezevich wears military fatigues and sits on a gurney-style bed in a spotlight. Overhead, a fan casts a shadow evocative of helicopter blades. The echoing war noises suggest he suffers from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Overall, the sequence proves reminiscent of the prologue to Apocalypse Now with Martin Sheen.

Instead, it's a nontraditional introduction to The Odyssey, Homer's epic poem of Odysseus' trials and temptations as he struggled for 10 years to return to his native Ithaca following the Trojan War. Artistic director Richard Garner, who directs the production and wrote the adaptation with the ensemble, uses the saga of Odysseus' star-crossed homecoming to illuminate the contemporary experience of war veterans adjusting to life on the home front.

Titled The Odyssey: A Journey Home, the production begins with scenes in a VA hospital, with Knezevich's superior officers describing him as a decorated strategist who's physically back in his home town, but trapped in his own head. A nurse reads The Odyssey to him as a kind of therapy, leading to flashbacks that dramatize the book's events. While the homecoming concept thematically fits The Odyssey in theory, in practice it feels disconnected from the original.

Garner's version follows the structure of the original poem, which begins in Ithaca, where a small army of boorish suitors has besieged Odysseus' household, seeking to marry his wife Penelope (Tess Malis Kincaid), who hasn't seen her husband in two decades. As Penelope, Kincaid conveys toughness within her uncertainty as she longs for her husband's return. Meanwhile, her son Telemachus (Craig Thompson) stands at the brink of manhood, despite his absent dad and the suitors' bullying behavior. Athena (Carolyn Cook) gets permission from Zeus (Chris Kayser) to aid Odysseus' family. Despite moments of divine inspiration, the Ithaca scenes move at a crawl and take pains to establish obvious points, although Kayser, as a family servant, sings a haunting tune about "the wine-dark sea," quoting Homeric imagery.

We catch up to Odysseus on the island of the nymph Calypso (Eliana Marianes), who offers him everything except the home he longs for. Eventually Odysseus leaves, gets shipwrecked again and makes his way to a friendly island kingdom where he recounts his story and, nearly an hour into the show, describes the thrilling adventures that make The Odyssey famous. The production's sluggishness evaporates before Knezevich's poetic, passionate narration and the inventive design work. (In the choice of leading man, nautical source material, and visual flourishes, The Odyssey feels like a sequel to Garner's 2007 staging of Pericles).

The production uses colored sheets so artfully, the fabrics practically steal the show. During one storm at sea, Odysseus rolls over the bodies of fellow actors, draped in sheets to hauntingly evoke the swell of waves. For his visit to the underworld, spirits rise beneath the fabric like half-seen ghosts. A black sheet engulfs Odysseus' foolhardy sailors and then collapses to the floor, as if the actors vanished within. Other clever devices include the Cyclops (Bruce Evers), constructed with a spotlight atop a parade puppet. The episodes with the Scylla, Charybdis and the sirens prove comparably imaginative, although Christmas lights turn out to be a silly means of signaling Calypso's supernatural nature.

The past year of high-profile adaptations of Greek myths, including the Percy Jackson and Clash of the Titans films, indicate that the denizens of Mount Olympus make awkward, kitschy dramatic characters, perhaps best suited to the satire of Dad's Garage's Clash, Titan, Clash!. Georgia Shakespeare's luminous treatment of Ovid's Metamorphoses feels like the exception that proves the rule. Here, Enoch King's wisecracking Hermes and Cook's Athena lack the dignity one expects from divinities. And why do characters like the suitors or Odysseus' sailors mock and defy Olympian commands, when the gods smite human beings all the time?

The show shifts to a more deliberate, but still compelling pace for Odysseus' incognito return to Ithaca and his revenge on the suitors. Garner ends the production with a lovely, ambiguous image that harks back to difficulty of soldiers returning to home life. But Odysseus' battle with external problems, like the suitors, seldom thematically supports the internal struggle of the contemporary soldier. You could snip away the American framing scenes entirely, and not really notice their absence. The homecoming motif seems a perfectly valid means of providing a fresh perspective on The Odyssey, but this particular campaign just needs a little more reinforcement.

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