After trudging through seven months of delay, the Loyola Department of Fine and Performing Arts (DFPA) debuted its production “Scenes from the Odyssey” Saturday, Sept. 19 on Zoom.
The DFPA sets a high bar for any COVID-19 theater production with its unrelenting talent and innovation. Cast and crew show great commitment, too, since, despite several of them graduating following the months-long delay, many of those alumni still stayed on to bring this endeavor to its finish.
Professor Sarah Gabel, the DFPA’s chairperson and the director of this work, prefaced the live performance with context, telling of the hoards of “technical monsters” the cast and crew had slain in order to achieve the standard of excellence they desired. For many directors, having to run a production on Zoom would be a nightmare, but, despite the onslaught of challenges Gabel and her team experienced, the result is more a dream-come-true.
“Scenes from the Odyssey” tells of a veteran’s struggles, a man who longs to return to his home of Ithaca from which he has been kept by the sea-god Poseidon. Odysseus’ absence from home, which has lasted about two decades, is what allows his son, wife and household to be taken advantage of as suitors press to take his wife’s hand in marriage, insisting Odysseus must be dead. Despite it all, Odysseus returns home and violently reclaims it from the clutches of the suitors, thus making his story one of overcoming obstacles at all costs.
The DFPA faced many obstacles, too, like the distance between performers and the lack of physical interaction between them, but the minds behind “Scenes from the Odyssey” leaped that hurdle flawlessly. Distance does nothing to prevent the goddess Circe (Sarah Gokelman) from passing her laundry to a crestfallen Odysseus (Greyson Smith).
The cast seems to have identical props within their respective areas and make a show of passing these materials in and out of view of their cameras, simulating a true exchange of materials. This innovation does wonders for many of the scenes. In the aforementioned scene, this mundane and familiar activity grounds their conversation and serves as a poetic juxtaposition with the heavy words of Circe.
The wonder of these scenes is in no small part due to the performers themselves. A junior theater major, Smith wears the skin of Odysseus like his own, portraying the hero of this epic as terse, witty and forlorn, even his voice revealing the depths of his character. Smith enhances every scene, whether it be through the furrowing of his brow or the deep-set sorrow in his eyes, and his presence is felt in every interaction.
Another artist comes under the guise of Penelope (Madisyn Fairchild). Tasked with playing arguably the most intelligent character in the epic, Loyola alumna Fairchild speaks with poise, grace and nuance of expression so befitting of her role. She hides an active mind and daring wit beneath her face, gifting the audience with the inscrutable caricatures of Odysseus’ wife.
But no character is so instantly lovable as Telemachus, whose strengths, weaknesses and growth are put on full display by junior Duncan Corbin. Corbin reminds the audience that many of these characters are human, and they develop and change accordingly.
He begins Telemachus’ narrative with a quivering voice, ineffectual against the bullies that surround him, namely Antinous (James O’Hara), whose sharp-tongued and genuinely aggravating nature testify to the skill of O’Hara, also a Loyola alumnus.
Telemachus ends his arc with a newfound solidity of speech that commands respect from those who once scorned him, yet, throughout it all, his voice remains as honest and his smile as humble as it always had been.
It’s certainly smiles-galore for everyone involved, both on the screen and in the audience. A viewer can’t help but enjoy the contrast between the calm “Girl from Ipanema” instrumental and the boisterous, apparently Boston-born goddess Calypso (Isabella Van Houzen), nor can they resist a laugh at the scooter-riding bundle of chaos that is the messenger-god Hermes (Levi Welch).
These are just a couple of many examples in which the DFPA takes the liberty of reimagining the “Odyssey” in a modern context, offering flair and dimensionality to characters that might otherwise be less dynamic.
A key reimagining comes forward in the jarring song of the sirens during which the production pushes for the unexpected, overturning traditional expectations of a siren-scene in favor of a more timely message.
It begins as one might expect, with the soft cries of various female cast members telling of how submission and closeness to a man is all they might long for. But, with a semantic jolt, they directly confront patriarchy-born stereotypes of women found in the dictionary, all while continuing their song. It’s yet another example of poetic juxtaposition, this time to defy the definitions that dead men have placed upon them.
Beyond just overcoming the limitations of Zoom, the siren scene, among others, actually draws out benefits from the platform’s issues. The sound-delay of Zoom adds to the auditory chaos of the sirens’ call, better realizing it as the assault of sweet whispers it was intended to be.
Zoom’s limitations are turned on their head even more clearly with the booming shouts of Poseidon (Will Cheeseman), which are too loud for the platform’s capabilities and add a distorted, grizzled characteristic to the vocal wrath of the great sea-god. And, most of all, the simultaneous screams during certain scenes are not to Zoom’s liking, which, as many unfortunately now know, causes erratic changes in the sounds’ volume and quality, leading to more shrill and piercing shrieks.
The DFPA has undoubtedly shown off their intuition, surpassing and even subjugating the “technical monsters” this pandemic has presented them with. The cast and crew, including those not mentioned here explicitly, have done fine work on this production as they’re coming to the conclusion of this bizarre odyssey of their own.
The DFPA’s “Scenes from the Odyssey” has its final two shows this weekend: Saturday, Sept. 26, at 6 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 27, at 2 p.m. (CST). Tickets cost $5 for students and $10 otherwise, and they can be purchased here and donations are accepted.