New director extends creative freedom to audiences in ‘The Odyssey’
By Bonnie Berger
Baylor Theatre brings adventure, imagination and drama to the stage in a retelling of Homer’s “The Odyssey,” debuting at 7:30 p.m. today in the Mabee Theater.
Originally directed by Mary Zimmerman and adapted from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, the script has captivated audiences throughout the years, drawing a common correlation between generations.
Hailed as the “most dramatic homecoming in world literature” in Alvin Klein’s 2000 New York Times review, Zimmerman’s rendition of the epic appeals to “everyone who has ever been bored to death by coercive school assignments and anyone who is likely to recoil at the mention of Homer.”
However traumatized former high school students may have been, director Dr. David Jortner, an assistant professor, challenges preconceptions of “The Odyssey” as an outdated work, highlighting its classical qualities that critics and scholars adore.
“I’m very interested in why we retell some stories, why they get told and retold,” Jortner said. “I think [“The Odyssey”] talks a lot to us today about what traveling is and what it means to be on a journey.”
A former professor at Pennsylvania State University at Erie and the University of Pittsburgh, Jortner brings verve and a dedication to his productions, utilizing innovative tactics to enthuse the actors and the audience. “The Odyssey” is Jortner’s first production at Baylor.
“I think we’re taught that because it’s a classic that we can’t love a work like ‘The Odyssey,’” Jortner said. “One of the things the play does, as opposed to the epic, is it really captures the energy and beauty of the story in a really wonderful way.”
An ensemble play by nature, Jortner has cast 25 actors playing roughly 70 roles.
“There are actually so many more people backstage though that are just as important,” said Dallas senior Meg Sullivan, who plays Athena. “If I didn’t have dressers, hair and makeup crews, stage managers and designers, it wouldn’t be nearly as wonderful of a process,” Sullivan said.
“There are times we literally have to exit one side of the stage, sprint underneath the stage while changing clothes to become another character, and enter on the other side of the stage 30 seconds later. It’s thrilling.”
The script draws heavily from Homer’s original work, including elaborate details and spanning a vast series of events as Odysseus endeavors to return home. Fitting all these events into a two-and-a-half-hour time constraint proved challenging, calling for a little audience involvement, Jortner said.
“What I love is that this a play in which the audience helps to create the story in their mind, as much as we create it in the stage,” Jortner said. “We have five or six different boats that are called for in the script. …We can’t do that. We really want the audience to use their imagination to complete the boat … in their mind. There’s nothing that we could build or create that would be as grand as what your imagination can create.”
Enabling patrons to complete the set in their minds is Jortner’s philosophy of theater. He said allowing the audience as well as the actors have the freedom to create, results in a fulfilling investment and enjoyment to all.
“This play is so theatrical and requires a sense of suspended disbelief,” Sullivan said. “We’re putting monsters and giant whirl pools on stage. We’ve turned people into livestock. It’s a lot of fun to get your imagination involved to that extent, to enjoy the non-realism. But at the same time, it takes this theatricality and brings it closer to our lives.”
In a truly joint effort, the cast and staff members present a timeless epic, marrying the art and entertainment of the theater with each individual’s creativity.
“This is my first show [at Baylor], so that’s been the main highlight … to work with these incredible actors, designers and students, and to work with them so collaboratively, has been really exciting,” Jortner said.
Shows will run at 7:30 p.m. today, Wednesday and April 27-30, well as at 2 p.m on April 30 and May 1. Tickets are available for $15 online at www.baylor.edu/theatre or by calling (254) 710-1865.