Quantum Theatre’s ‘An Odyssey’ is a Fantastic Voyage

Sam Turich (foreground), Erika Strasburg, Sam Lothard, Grace Vensel, Shammen McCune, and Nancy McNulty holding court among golden columns.

Sam Turich (foreground), (l. to r.) Erika Strasburg, Sam Lothard, Grace Vensel, Shammen McCune, and Nancy McNulty holding court among golden columns.

Quantum Theater kicks off their 30th Anniversary season with Jay Ball’s adaptation of the classic Greek poem, the Odyssey, which he has titled An Odyssey. And isn’t that a perfectly titled show for all of us right now, as we are certainly in an odyssey of our times with covid and all of the anti-science rhetoric.

An Odyssey began when director Jed Allen Harris mentioned his “notion” of adapting the Odyssey to Quantum Theatre founder and artistic director Karla Boos. Ball, when asked, at first was reluctant to create an adaptation of the Odyssey. Boos mentioned that the story and it’s misogyny and cruelty should be seen as a problem for modern times and not an answer. Ball signed on after further researching the idea and receiving encouragement from Boos.

One of the ways that Ball’s adaptation differs from Homer’s classic poem is by the concentration on the female characters of the tale. Harris and Ball have teamed up on several projects before including Heiner Müller’s The Task and Michel de Ghelderode’s Pantagleize for Quantum. An Odyssey is being staged at a very picturesque location in Schenley Park—the Schenley Park Ice Skating Rink. It is Quantum’s 11th collaboration with Pittsburgh Citiparks. An Odyssey runs through September 5.

An Odyssey

Quantum Theatre’s An Odyssey‘s first scene has the story’s protagonist Odysseus (Sam Turich), who’s just floated to the Island of Scherie on a log, being discovered lurking about by Nausicaa (Erika Strasburg) and her maids, Actea (Shammen McCune), Alcippe (Nancy McNulty), and Adraste (Grace Vensel). This is also where you get the first inkling that this isn’t your father’s (or mother’s) Odyssey. Nausicca, a young princess, would sometimes drop into the modern day vernacular of a teenager. It became more apparent when Odysseus was discovered and the maidens used terms like “stranger danger.”

Nausicca was having a relaxing day with her maidens until Odysseus came along.

Nausicca (center) was having a relaxing day with her maidens until Odysseus came along.

Another of the first uses of humor in Ball’s adaptation was when Odysseus is subdued behind the curtain by the maidens. You can see shadows behind the hung white sheet acting out the scene and calling out each blow. They get to groin strike, and then another groin strike until the shadows and sound effects make the repeated groin strikes seem like a boxer working out on a speed bag.

Odysseus was pretty much subdued after the repeated groin strikes so now they had to clean him up. Still behind the curtain and shadow acting, you could hear water running, like a shower, then the sound of teeth brushing, an electric hair clipper, and even a blow dryer. The sound and lighting effects throughout the play were splendid and gave added effect.

For Odysseus to return home to Ithaca, Greece, and his wife Penelope (whom he hasn’t seen for 20 years, 10 years of fighting and 10 years of wandering), Nausicca realizes that he must tell a very convincing story to her father, King Alcinous. She asks Odysseus to recount his tale. He says he can’t because he has no men to lead. The maidens enlist in the telling of the tale as Gryllus (McCune), Kratos (McNulty), and Polites (Vensel). They used, what looked to be, a large wheeled luggage cart to sail the seas (the surface of the skating rink) as Odysseus recounted his story. The sound of the sea could be heard.

Will Odysseus ever find his way back to his wife Penelope?

Will Odysseus ever find his way back to his wife, Penelope (Catherine Gowl)?

There was a dynamic, and witty, relationship between Nausicca and Odysseus. Strasburgh and Turich played it brilliantly. As they sailed back through time in the recounting of his odyssey, she became his moral compass. And that’s what a lot of Ball’s adaptation seemed to be, holding Odysseus responsible for his oftentimes immoral behavior and bad leadership. We see this in how he belittled Polyphemus (Sam Lothard), the cyclops, for being different and he even called him a monster. Odysseus and his men also roasted and ate all of Polyphemus’s sheep. And in those days, one had to be careful, as many characters in Greek lore were related to a god. Polyphemus was related to Poseidon, the god of the sea, who then put a curse on Odysseus. This added to Odysseus’ travel itinerary.

Other instances of moral accountability were delivered when Odysseus, a married man, slept with the sultry, temptress Circe. Very capably played by Catherine Gowl, who wore a beautiful, sexy dress and high heels. He had to after losing the bet that he could convince Gryllus, who Cerce changed along with Kratos and Polites into hopping kangaroos with Australian accents, to become human again. Gryllus gives Odysseus a real dressing down about how freeing it is to be a kangaroo and not having to listen to him anymore. One scene has Penelope (Gowl) and the Sirens trying to break Odysseus down. An Odyssey also seeks to explore the roots of Odysseus’s travails.

Nausicaa (l.) and Odysseus (r.) flank King Alcinous.

Nausicaa and Odysseus flank King Alcinous.

It’s not just a morality play though, it’s also a very humorous one with many funny lines. Naussica has many witty retorts. Lothard provided some very fine comic relief as Hermes, the out-of-breath messenger of the gods. He was delivering a warning message to Odysseus about Circe and could first be seen wandering through the rear of the ice rink stage area until he found him. Lothard was dressed in a UPS-like brown delivery uniform and delivered several funny lines. It was also fun to see Lothard as King Alcinous in his blinged-out motorized throne (battery-driven wheel chair). And Turich had a few, including when he was recounting the hellmouths (entrances) to Hades, one of which he said was the Sideling Hill Service Plaza (PA Turnpike rest stop). And of course McCune, McNulty, and Vensel who acted their comedic parts expertly throughout the show. Gowl had a funny bit when she was trying to tempt Odysseus with her freshly-baked lemon lavender scones and Earl Grey tea. The Pittsburgh perennial favorite word “jagoff” could also be heard in a scene.

An Odyssey had one of the most beautiful closing scenes. The last line of the play was very apropos, minimalistic, and one that could relate to both life in ancient Greece and modern-day America. I thoroughly enjoyed the play and I think you might too.

The hills (of Schenley Park) are alive with the sounds of 'An Odyssey.'

The hills (of Schenley Park) are alive with the sounds of ‘An Odyssey.’

Closing Credits

Before An Odyssey began I looked in the program for the acts and scenes. They weren’t listed. However, in watching the play I understood why, It was just one long scene. Every part of the play smoothly flowed from one to the other. Sometimes in between parts of the story the actors would enter and exit from two small tents on the ice skating rink stage. The direction by Jed Allen Harris had the production moving like clockwork. The story and dialog from Jay Ball’s adaptation was crisp, thoughtful, and humorous.

The Quantum Theater team for  An Odyssey includes Narelle Sissons (scenic design), C. Todd Brown (lighting design), Mindy Eshelman (costume design), Joe Pino (sound design), Randy Kovitz (fight director), Mindy Eshelman and ROY (installation artists), Cory Goddard (production stage manager), and Piper Clement (ASM and Health and Safety Supervisor).

For more information and to purchase tickets for An Odyssey, visit the Quantum Theater website or call the box office at (412) 362-1713. Pre-show boxed dinners are also available through pre-ordering from Quantum’s NearBuy restaurant partners.

Photos: Heather Mull.

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central.