The sheer scope of the “Odyssey” would seem to preclude theatrical adaptation. The story leaps from island to island with a multitude of characters. Its narrative tropes, too, are anything but performance-friendly. Third-person narration is elliptical and verbose, frequently employing paragraph-long “epic similes” that are pretty much exactly what they sound like.
The production follows the first 12 books of Homer’s “The Odyssey,” abridged and adapted for the stage. It begins, as the books do, with Odysseus trapped on an island, the consort of a goddess but pining for home. He is set free by the Olympians and washes ashore at the court of the seafaring Phaeacians, where he recounts the many adventures that led to his arrival.
The performance is intimate, featuring a cast of only 10, each sharing portions of the narration and assuming roles as needed. This technique is used to great advantage. Each actor’s performances emphasize particular moods and draw parallels between characters. For example, Courtney Walsh plays both the goddess Calypso and the fearful Cyclops. Though physically and emotionally opposite, they both demonstrate misapplications of hospitality when they prevent Odysseus from leaving their islands.
Odysseus himself is played by five different cast members throughout, changing actors in a way that highlights the talents of each. When Odysseus is adventuring on the high seas, Alex Ubokudom takes the reins with a wry wink. Paul Baird demonstrates the hero’s skill with diplomacy. And when the epic power of a storyteller must be invoked, the booming presence of L. Peter Callendar steps into the character’s shoes. While at times the transitions from actor to actor can be jarring, the switches are justified and well chosen. Odysseus himself is slippery and clever, a trickster hero in the vein of Anansi or Brer Rabbit, and the technique effectively emulates that.
Whoever isn’t playing a character serves as a dynamic Greek chorus, adding commentary and color as the plot moves forward. The choreography is deftly executed, and movement is lively and varied. The actors climb through rafters and swing on ropes, inventing and creating a new space on the stage. The minimalist approach to props is particularly innovative. Cloth, wood and rope are used in so many different manners you wonder why one would bother with anything more elaborate. The show asks audience members to use their imaginations. Ordinary objects, such as a blue scarf, are imbued with complex symbolism through repeated use.
The intimacy and sparseness of the production give the show a sense of interconnectedness and naturalism. We are presented with a story told more than 2,700 years ago, and it remains resonant today. “The Wanderings of Odysseus” is alternately exciting, funny, moving and majestic, wholly unique in a time when storytelling is dominated by exploitation and spectacle.
“The Wanderings of Odysseus” plays through Aug. 15. Tickets are $20, $10 for students. More information and show times are at summertheater.stanford.edu.