Epic story brought to small stage

Promising acting and direction bring play to audience’s level

Chaos Theory’s production of The Odyssey brings freshness to the Homeric tale by portraying Penelope’s side of the story.
Image by: Harrison Smith
Chaos Theory’s production of The Odyssey brings freshness to the Homeric tale by portraying Penelope’s side of the story.

A small room with white walls and a low ceiling may not sound like the right stage for an epic theatre production, but Chaos Theory Theatre’s The Odyssey takes its audience out of Kingston and into a beautiful, mythical, distant land.

Using sound effects and a minimalist set, Chaos Theory takes the classic tale of Odysseus’s quest for home after the Trojan war—and his wife Penelope’s 20-year wait for his return—to a place far beyond the Modern Fuel Gallery’s small performance space.

The Odyssey is a story about travel, time and family. But more than that, it’s about a story told within a play. Rick Chafe’s layered adaptation of Homer’s epic brings not only Odysseus’s, but Penelope’s story to the audience. It showcases both the struggles of Odysseus’ crew to have faith in him and the struggle of his son Telemachus to maintain faith in his mother.

Directed by Tom McGee, ArtSci ’08, Chafe’s play is a powerful testament to the driving power of love: one man’s desire to return to his wife and son, and his wife’s desire to remain unmarried until he arrives—no easy feat with 107 suitors camping in her courtyard.

Played by Chloë Ariane Whitehorn, Penelope is a formidable and vulnerable queen. In her opening scene, I wondered if Whitehorn would be able to play Penelope as deeply as the character deserves, but I needn’t have worried. Whitehorn’s Penelope is a gracious, stoic, brokenhearted woman, someone who’s holding it all together but is tired of waiting on a man who may now be nothing more than a ghost.

Whitehorn draws the audience into the life of the wife left behind and she manages to give some history to the story without seeming obvious about it. Her love for both her husband and son is palpable and Whitehorn is believable as the proud and disappointed queen of Ithaca.

While Penelope’s scenes are the play’s present, Odysseus’s story is told by a stranger, played with passion by Ryan Graham, and performed for the audience as convincingly as Penelope.

Despite its broad array of characters, the play’s cast is small—the only actors who don’t play more than one character are Whitehorn and Graham. This small cast demands excellence from everyone and doesn’t disappoint. The actors are able to morph into Gods, crewmen and Penelope’s suitors with apparent effortlessness and ease.

While all the supporting cast is excellent, two really stand out. Annie Briggs brings energy and humour to her turn as Penelope’s maid Eurycleia and a quiet power to her portrayal of Athena. Max Marcus spends much of the play as either one of Penelope’s suitors or a member of Odysseus’s crew. But as their son Telemachus, he shines as an insecure 20 year old, both afraid of and determined to face his destiny as Ithaca’s ruler.

The only drawback to using just a few actors to play many characters is that, for the audience, it’s not always clear where they are at the beginning of the scene. The costumes—excepting Penelope and the stranger—are simple, all consisting of a beige tunic with a rope belt and some form of drapery. Although there are subtle changes to the costumes’ arrangements—repositioning of the belts or drapery—the movements from scene to scene could be made clearer.

The acting is strong on all counts, too many of the key moments of the play are blocked by the back of one or more actor. Modern Fuel doesn’t have a stage, so most of the acting is done at the audience’s eye level. While this allows the audience to connect with the characters and see their facial expressions, it also means that one back towards audience can block an entire scene.

Despite this, Chaos Theory manages to do a great deal with very little in the way of props. The set is little more than some flats, a raised platform and a curtain that doubles as a sail, depending on a scene. The sound effects performed by Marianne Vander Dussen, the play’s producer and sound designer, are the real support of the show. Whether it was the sound of the ocean, pigs squealing in the distance or a beautiful medieval instrumental piece, the sound effects situate the audience in not only location, but also each scene’s mood and emotion.

In its combinations of the starkness of Modern Fuel’s space, simple costumes, beautiful sound effects and promising acting performances, Chaos Theory shows promise in becoming one of Queen’s leading student-run theatre companies.

The Odyssey is playing this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre (21A Queen St.). Tickets are available at Destinations for $10.

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