Following the success of his one-man show of Beowulf at the Theatre Project last winter, acclaimed solo artist Charlie Bethel returns to Baltimore with the area’s debut of his uniquely re-imagined interpretation of Homer’s famous tale, The Odyssey, in a wholly dedicated yet accessible performance.
As part of the Theatre Project’s guest artist series, actor and writer, Charlie Bethel tells the entire 80-plus character epic of The Odyssey with boundless energy, meticulous lighting effects and incisive sound cues, captivating the audience with his carefully-calibrated intonation, his penetrating facial expressions, and his enthusiastic dynamism.
Set on what appears to be a professor’s office with stacks of books and piles of papers everywhere, Bethel enters the scene in ordinary street clothes and begins with a poetic monologue that immediately launches into the story. It is after the Battle of Troy and Odysseus and his men are trying to sail home to Ithaca.
Not missing a beat, this production highlights all of the best moments from The Odyssey, including when Odysseus makes his first of many enemies by taunting and stabbing the Cyclops in the eye. Climbing a ladder, covering one eye and roughening up his voice, Bethel seamlessly shifts from narrator to the giant Cyclops. Synchronized audio cues of giant stone rolling and sheep braying set the scene.
In his adaptation, Bethel made it a point to ensure The Odyssey is relatable and engaging to modern-day viewers by winking at the audience, giving us clues on what is to come, and pausing to explain inside jokes. With methodically metered speech and direct eye contact, Bethel makes each of his gestures and movements meaningful, entrancing onlookers and, later, even encouraging everyone to recite the phrase “rosy-fingered dawn” along with him throughout the second half of the show.
Making the use of nearly every single item placed on the set, throughout the performance, props are thrown… all over the stage. An amazingly effective technique to show a tempestuous storm is created by throwing the piles of papers everywhere. To demonstrate the destructiveness of a fight scene, stacks of books are knocked over and tossed. The end result is a set that looks like a tornado, earthquake, or other natural disaster ravaged it in the course of 90 minutes.
The journey continues as the ladder cleverly converts into the ship. Bethel’s voice swells and softens like the crashing waves against the boat. Each member of Odysseus’s crew dies, some being eaten by the six-headed Scylla, some drowning in the whirlpools of Charybdis, and the rest befalling more gruesome fates.
Bethel’s spins Homer’s tale easily and compellingly by judiciously peppering his presentation with enough contemporary idiom to aid the original poem’s comprehensibility. For example, at the beginning of the journey when Odysseus’ men sack and pillage their way back home, Bethel’s interjects, “that’s how they roll”. Later, when Odysseus encounters a tribe of giant cannibals called the Laestrygonians, Bethel describes a first meeting with “a big girl, who was quite the looker.” And, when Odysseus encounters the lovely Helen of Troy, Bethel turns her traditional epithet on its head, describing her beauty as “the face that killed a million guys.”
Endlessly entertaining, inventive and thought-provoking, Bethel’s contemporary storytelling of The Odyssey is entirely engrossing and enthralling, continuously creating and returning to motifs that ground a seemingly endless parade of sometimes-gruesome misadventures and strange-named characters. As in the unabridged poem, the production’s end finds Odysseus at long last back in Ithaca – both the character and the actor portraying him undoubtedly depleted from the experience, bestowing the audience with a thrilling and hallowing journey that reminds us: “Never give up. Because someone needs you bad.”
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.