WE'VE ALL HEARD IT, whether we know it or not: Odysseus' valiant journey home past monsters and mayhem to his grieving Penelope has been ingrained in us through its innumerous reinventions in pop culture. Mary Zimmerman's The Odyssey, which just opened at the Rep, begins with a frustrated Athena (Mariann Mayberry) attempting to read Homeric verse aloud and unable to do it with any great interest or conviction until she is, quite literally, wrenched into it. For director and adaptor Zimmerman (The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Metamorphoses), this has been a constant—to make crucially, physically palpable the tales that have shaped us.
Seattle Repertory Theater ends November 18
She seems here, in fact, to have tipped the balance in favor of athleticism and sensation. The actors, most of whom are playing multiple roles (Mayberry serves as a puckish guide), wrap around one another in choreographed seductions and slip into and out of seamless, artful flashbacks. The epic unfolds with dazzlingly polished maneuverings: the ominous, tribal grand entrance of Penelope's would-be suitors, who come to claim her in her beloved's absence; their equally stunning deaths met in pools of light under punctured, showering sandbags.
Zimmerman has exquisite taste in bodies—her performers are lithe and commanding—but not every shape on stage has the same actorly agility. Some of the ensemble are less successful than others with the precarious balance behind Zimmerman's tone, which requires an effortless embrace of lyricism that must, in hairpin curves, be just as easily shrugged off. The wryly ironic Christopher Donahue, however, makes a smashing Odysseus and is matched by Felicity Jones' brooding Penelope. There are also pleasing distractions in Anjali Bhimani's impish Calypso, Louise Lamson's sultry and comic turn as Circe, and in Mario Campanaro's jaded Hermes (seen here, in one of Mara Blumenfeld's many marvelous costume touches, as a leather-jacketed bike messenger).
THE EVENING CAN get precious. The show is awfully fond of its own high-toned irreverence, with its playful takes on the Cyclops—an oversized shadow on a screen, munching silhouetted human dolls—and other creatures. Zimmerman's sometimes hermetic tone, too, can cause things to be more pristine than passionate; the sights are so immaculate that they threaten to keep you at arm's length.
Oh, but hang in there, for what sights they are—you're not likely to witness a more visually beautiful show this season. Zimmerman has a transporting sense of spacing and placement in her stage pictures; a yearning ache fills the eloquent distances seen here. After the long but involving first act, it's not unfair to doubt whether the director will be able to put something larger on top of this tale, to bring it around to some forgotten epiphany. And, in truth, this production doesn't quite have the tear-soaked engagement of Metamorphoses, Zimmerman's last outing, though it never once lags in all its three and a half hours.
By the time Odysseus has completed his last task and walked off into the distance of T.J. Gerckens' impeccable lighting, you feel strangely, enormously pleased, and it's a feeling that lingers. This show actually gets better after it's over; the epic musings behind its imagery tug at you days later. What has been accomplished here, with a wondrous, deceptive simplicity, is that increasingly rare theatrical task of telling a really great story.