Life’s not easy if you’re young prince Telemachus. You miss the dad you barely remember, people think you are too young to take over for a king and demigod like Odysseus, your mother Penelope is being forced to marry one of the many suitors she’s been sleeping around with, and you’re not sure if your first girlfriend, Calliope, is interested in you or your position. That’s the intriguing setup of the entertaining and intelligent Crown of Shadows: the wake of odysseus by Jason Gray Platt, receiving its world premiere at Round House Theatre.
Confession time – this reviewer only survived suffering through four years of high school Latin by falling in love with history and mythology, especially the big epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Yet you don’t need to be a fan of the classics to enjoy this clever new riff on the story of the family of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses).
In the classic version, faithful Penelope manages to hold off the many suitors who desire the path to the throne that goes through her wedding bed. One of her tricks involves insisting that she can’t marry until she finishes sewing a funeral shroud for the father of Odysseus only to unravel it each night (none too bright these suitors.) Ten years after the end of the Trojan War her husband returns just in the nick of time to reunite his family and reclaim the throne.
Jason Gary Platt reimagines the story to focus on the plight of Telemachus in a drama that artfully blends the classic story with contemporary sensibilities. Telemachus is the sullen young student who is turned off by her mother’s apparent disloyalty to the memory of his father and by the men who make overnight visits, treating her like a “party favor who puts out.” He doesn’t understand the pragmatic accommodations that Penelope must make (“I do what I have to do”) or the politics of the situation, namely that the Council is forcing her to choose a new mate who will become King of Ithaca. In their society women cannot rule and Telemachus is viewed as too callow to be a contender for the throne.
One of the instigators of the coming of age of Telemachus is beautiful Calliope, who takes the initiative in a cute romantic pursuit of him. She is, like, totally extraverted and curious about her famous yet awkward classmate. Besides, her father is a minor government bureaucrat who encourages her to introduce herself to the young prince who might be king one day.
A turning point comes when Calliope encourages Telemachus to read his father’s sacred draft memoir (one of many occasions where thunderous offstage rumbles and/or heavy portentous music hint at the tragic events to follow). Telemachus becomes inspired by his father’s accounts of battles and his advice on seeking power. Telemachus becomes emboldened to assert himself in matters of intrigue, sex, and violence, using whatever means necessary to achieve his goals.
Crown of Shadows: the wake of odysseus is a rare play that works well on many levels. All of the characters are mixtures of love and ambition in ways that encourage ambivalent feelings. Is Telemachus an innocent man-child or an increasingly power-hungry yet childish man? Is Penelope more Lady Madonna or Lady MacBeth? How much of Calliope’s attraction to Telemachus is based upon her affection for him or for the wealthy and glamorous lifestyle that comes with marriage to a prince? To the playwright’s credit, he lets the audience assess their motivations and make their own judgments.
The play also works well as a work of intrigue and the pursuit of power. It is fascinating to watch all four of the main characters (including the Chief of the Guards who is called upon to cover up for an impulsive act by Telemachus) play and at times overplay their hands while seeking to fulfill their ambitions.
Crown of Shadows is entertaining as a bang-up story that is authentic to its tragic roots yet takes a new direction. Without disclosing any details, the violent and sudden ending will leave audience members gasping.
The story is told with a cast of four. Michael Morrow Hammack persuasively embodies both the boyish Telemachus and his growing manhood. Deborah Hazlett (Penelope) skillfully shows the wearying side of a single mother trying to deal with a difficult son, yet who is also capable of withering putdowns of the suitors who are doomed to fall short of her famous husband. Julia Proctor (Calliope) makes a welcome return to Round House Theatre to give a charming yet complex rendition of the young woman who winds up in deeper waters that she realized. Finally, Jefferson A. Russell gives several different distinct and powerful characterizations in many different male roles.
Blake Robison’s direction reminds us once again what a loss the area will suffer with his impending departure for a new artistic venture. The mix of contemporary language and attitudes with the classic story requires a very skillful balancing act, but he orchestrates the performances adeptly. His direction lets the characters feel natural yet conveying the right degree of intended humor. The action sequences are powerful and memorable.
Robison also orchestrates great work from his artistic team. Mischa Kachman’s outstanding set combines classic and contemporary elements consistent with the play while providing a sense of commanding scale suitable to the tragedy. Bill Clarke’s costumes are spot on from the casual young garb to the power outfits suitable for more formal events. The lighting design is subtle and supportive for most of the play, yet finishes with a commanding effect that communicates the final plot twist
Jason Gray Platt’s Crown of Shadows: the wake of odysseus has a distinctive voice and a sureness of footing that belie the playwright’s relatively young years. Even aside from Round House’s strong and entertaining production, it is worth making the trip just to see the work of such a promising young writer. Just don’t bring the kids. The story is very R rated in language, violence, and brief nudity; i.e., all of the ingredients for a powerful tragedy.
Crown of Shadows: the wake of odysseus runs thru May 6, 2012 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway Bethesda, MD
Crown of Shadows: the wake of odysseus
Written by Jason Gray Platt
Directed by Blake Robison
Produced by The Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes (one intermission)