Lisa Peterson’s Four Epic SuperWomen Reboot Homer
by Barry David Horwitz
Generations have pondered whether to admire or scorn Odysseus for his love affairs, lack of compassion, and clever disguises. But no one until now has changed the epic poem into a modern story of hospitality, rebirth, and asylum.
Lisa Peterson has written and directed a version of The Odyssey that embodies the search for “home” in the figures of four displaced women who are waiting in a relocation camp in Greece. Peterson’s “Odyssey” is a triumph of dramatic storytelling and creative transformation. A blanket becomes a hero and gold leaf makes a king.
In Peterson’s “Odyssey,” these four women have been driven out of their homes in Tunisia, Rwanda, Albania, and Syria. They are trapped in the featureless, bleak refugee camp. The sign over their heads reads:
ACCESS CENTER of SAMOS
Ministry of Migrations & Asylum
The asylum seekers are nowhere and everywhere. They are waiting for a signal to move on.
Lisa Peterson comes to The Odyssey armed with Emily Wilson’s 2018 translation, the first one by a woman. She has them take us on their perilous voyage–with Homer’s hero as their forerunner. We are adrift with them on the brilliant blue projections of a threatening ocean. The waves change from blue to red to orange with the story’s moods. An exclamation point tower holds speakers that bark out orders unexpectedly. The future looks grim.
The women are not all that friendly to each other at the start—they have private sorrows to grieve. Yet when Tunisian immigrant Anoud (mesmerizing Layla Khoshnoudi) pulls The Odyssey from her pack, they haltingly agree to act out the epic. What else to do?
They take turns playing Odysseus, Athena, Zeus, the Cyclops, and the goddesses Calypso and Circe. They grow into themselves as they merge with ancient legends, improvising costumes and slipping into songs. Their movements make a ballet of the story.
When Tunisian immigrant Anoud chooses the best roles, Rwandan refugee Zee (commanding Zam Mlengana) challenges her. Zee takes the cloak of Odysseus, and delivers her own indelible turns as hero, god, and goddess.
The actors inhabit both god and man with precision and empathy. Anoud figures out that she cannot hold the stage forever, while Zee gives up pouting to become Athena herself. Their regal bearing and growing confidence make them the heroes of this new “Odyssey.” They replace Odysseus’ trickery with more down-to-earth patience and friendship.
As Albanian Hana, Anya Whelan-Smith subtly turns into Odysseus in disguise, bringing a sweet, sad wisdom to the role. And as Syrian immigrant Béa, Sophie Zmorrod plays guitar and sings Masi Asare’s touching original songs like a true Bard.
Lisa Peterson’s staging is as full of “twists and turns” as her “hero.” She uses simple metal tables and Red-Cross kits as ships and armies. Sticks and ropes become mountain tops and whirlpools. Her theatrical inventiveness keeps us thirsty for the next witty incarnation.
As the four women constantly trade roles, their complete engagement in each scene rings true. They unearth new ways to enchant us. They breathe new life into Homer and become their own greater selves.
Maybe it takes a woman to understand the sources of evil and aggression that swirl around. And a woman to vanquish them. When women like these fan out to new countries, will they create new ways to make a “home”?
I, for one, rode the colored waves with joy, relishing the journey, safe in the hands of consummately talented and empowered women actors, director, writer, translator. Thank you, Lisa Peterson, for taking us on the high seas in this humane new masterpiece.
“Odyssey” –written & directed by Lisa Peterson, based on Homer’s The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson, scenic design by Tanya Orellana, costume design by Sarita Fellows, lighting design by Russell H. Champa, sound design by Sinan Refik Zaar, original songs by Masi Asare, from The Acting Company (N.Y.) with Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley, California. Info: MarinTheatre.org – to September 24, 2023.
Cast: Layla Khoshnoudi, Zamo Mlengana, Anya Whelan-Smith, and Sophie Zmorrod.
Banner photo: Layla Khoshnoudi, Anya Whelan-Smith, Sophie Zmorrod, & Zamo Mlengana. Photos by Kevin Berne