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No place like home: Stanford Summer Theater presents 'The Wanderings of Odysseus'

The summer season will explore that most mysterious of heroes – the Trojan War leader who only wanted to go back to Ithaca. The Homer-inspired season includes a staged reading of Derek Walcott's Caribbean riff on the ancient legends.

Jack Hubbard

Director Rush Rehm talks about the modern implications of the Homer poem.

BY CYNTHIA HAVEN

They get close – so close – to the shores of Ithaca that they can see the fires of the Greeks. After years at sea, Odysseus is home at last.

Then – disaster.

While he is in a deep and exhausted sleep, his crewmates murmur among themselves about the mysterious leather bag beneath his head, a gift from the Aeolus, ruler of the winds. Is their leader hoarding a god's gold and silver gifts?

"Everyone is united around the idea that someone is getting away with something. But he's not. He's perfectly capable of being a self-centered – but here he's not," Director Rush Rehm tells his cast during a rehearsal for this Stanford Summer Theater's production cycle, Around the Fire: Homer in Performance.

The crew pries loose the mysterious bag: "Then everybody gathers round it – shaking it, then undoing it somehow," the drama and classics professor instructs them. "Open it – then a second of nothing – then an explosion." The bag explodes into a hurricane, destroying all the Greek ships but one, and blasting the final vessel hopelessly out to sea.

"Do you think he'd sleep on a bag full of silver and gold?" an uncertain actor asks Rehm.

Stefanie Okuda 'The Wanderings of Odysseus': Lotus Eaters (Donnie Hill, Rush Rehm, L. Peter Callender)

'The Wanderings of Odysseus': Lotus Eaters (Donnie Hill, Rush Rehm, L. Peter Callender)

"You bet he would!" Rehm answers in a beat.

At this year's Stanford Summer Theater, Odysseus walks the boards again, but they aren't the planks of his ship – they're the floorboards of the Nitery Theater's stage. The Wanderings of Odysseus opens July 22 and continues through Aug. 15. A staged reading of Embers of War, Rehm's acclaimed 1978 translation of Homer's Iliad, will be performed at 8 p.m. on Aug. 3 and 4 in Pigott Theater, behind Memorial Auditorium.

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott's riff on the epic, Omeros, centering on his native St. Lucia in the Caribbean, will have a staged reading at 8 p.m. on Aug. 10 and 11 in Pigott Theater. (The staged readings are free.)

A Homeric-themed Monday night film series in Annenberg Auditorium, beginning at 7 p.m. July 12, continues through Aug. 9.

The cycle presents challenging work for actors and director. How do you portray a hurricane onstage? Or a shipwreck? Or a Cyclops who devours men alive, or a sorceress who turns men into animals?

Homer didn't have a stage in mind for the masterpieces that have been the taproot of Western civilization since they were created, perhaps 3 millennia ago.  The current production adapts Oliver Taplin's translation of The Odyssey, written in a loose Anglo-Saxon prosody, which Rehm directed for the Mark Taper Forum in 1992 at the Getty Museum.

"It's very daunting work for eight actors – physically and textually," said Rehm. Roles rotate among the performers – sometimes several actors play Odysseus in the same scene.

The performers are onstage the whole time. "It's an ensemble show – unlike anything the Stanford Summer Theater has ever done before," he said. "Nobody leaves the stage for more than a few seconds, and those few seconds are spent behind a scrim."

And, during the rehearsals on this particular day, the actors seem to be offering as much direction as Rehm, particularly L. Peter Callender, who is also artistic director of the African American Shakespeare.

"Some days ideas need to flow more from the actors than from Rush," said Callender. "It's unusual that everyone has a say in everything. I've never experienced that before. That's how ideas here marinate. Rush is very humble."

Stefanie Okuda Calypso (Courtney Walsh) clings to Odysseus (L. Peter Callender).

Calypso (Courtney Walsh) clings to Odysseus (L. Peter Callender).

When not enacting a character, the actors provide background action, for Homer's verse is a world of motion. For all its verbal polish, it's an endless round of feasting, rowing, sex, fighting monsters. Hence, "It's a constant organizational maelstrom of action – the actors have to be on their game continually, constantly on focus," said Rehm.

"The body is never absent from Homer," he added, nor is it absent from Walcott's sensuous Caribbean isle, a work that explores the nexus of colonialism, history and love.

A man of twists and turns

This year's Wanderings of Odysseus centers on that most enigmatic of heroes, the Odysseus of Odyssey. The more peripheral forerunner in the The Iliad gives little warning of the great personal transformation Odysseus will undergo in the later epic. After the bloodbath of Troy, he is a man desperate to go home.

Calypso, Achilles and Agamemnon call him a "man of many devices"; his own mother calls him "first of men in misfortune." Elsewhere, Homer calls him a "man of twists and turns." He's deceptive, vain, smart, proud, heroic, foolish and absolutely bursting with strength and agility.

Yet he must learn patience and timing. He finds the heroism in humility and the complexities in human nature. Before reentering his house as master, he must disguise himself as a beggar and "hang out in a dung heap outside his own house," said Rehm.

In short, "If it's just one damn thing after another, we're not doing our job," said Rehm. "One of the delights of Homer is that it's not just stories."

Casual readers of the Odyssey may not note how elegantly and subtly the work is constructed: Rehm said "it repeats itself, like classical music" and has "harmonic depth. The repeated patterns become more complicated, have more meaning."

According to Callender, "What we're trying to create is a magical piece – where we are carrying Odysseus through all these wanderings."

"We're trying to bring those poems back into the limelight. It's so rare for them to be read, so rare for them to be enjoyed. They still take you to a place you never thought of. Take them out and read them, read them to your children. They shouldn't be forgotten."

For ticket information, visit http://summertheater.stanford.edu or call 650/725-5838.