With all of the theater done in Los Angeles, the rich veins of the world's repertoire that are regularly ignored by even the serious companies is a real, ongoing and embarrassing problem.
When was the last time, for example, you heard the Greeks? That's why "The Wanderings of Odysseus"--director Rush Rehm's staging in the J. Paul Getty Museum courtyard of Oliver Taplin's fresh translation of the adventure-filled middle books of Homer's "The Odyssey"--is such an essential experience for anyone who cares about the never-ending project of keeping the great stories alive.
Like Peter Brook's version of "The Mahabharata," this co-production by the Getty and the Mark Taper Forum is a grand attempt to fill in an audience on a mythological adventure its members may not know very well. Unlike "The Mahabharata," still a vital part of Indian life, the importance in the West has been allowed, like one of smog-choked Athens' statues, to decay. Just as Athena rescues Odysseus for his return home, Rehm and Taplin have rescued a story from its library prison and brought it back to its oral origins.
An intelligent directness guides everything here, and there are four key reasons why. First, there is the decision (Taplin's? Rehm's? Both?) to do only Books 5 through 13 of "The Odyssey," which depict the hero's travel from Calypso to Scheria, where he is greeted, feasted and finally cajoled by King Alcinous to reveal his identity and his amazing maritime adventure after the end of the Trojan War. According to his program notes, Taplin wishes to do the entire epic in an evening, but the sense of this very full four-hour (with two generous intermissions) performance is that that would be folly.
Then there's Taplin's translation, superbly clear and styled for maximum listening pleasure. Although "Odyssey" fans battle over their favorite translations (I once heard grown people screaming at each other over which was superior, Alexander Pope's or Richmond Lattimore's), most of them are designed to be read. Taplin's is made to be heard.
Third, the place. The Getty courtyard's realm of columns, sculpted foliage and reflecting pools (adding much texture to R. Stephen Hoyes' ingenious lighting scheme) becomes one with a performance that fluidly moves on designer John Wilson's complex of platforms. The free basket dinners and tables spilling over with grapes and other Greek desserts are just right for a tale stuffed with food and drink.
Finally, this cast makes "The Odyssey" profoundly sensual. The ensemble of Josh Clark, Bairbre Dowling, Page Leong, Andrew Robinson (replaced by Tony Amendola Friday through Sunday, but returning the final weekend) and Michael Santo works with astonishingly few glitches, considering that each had more than 4,000 lines to memorize. They move, interact and sing as a unit (gorgeously supported by John Fitzgerald's percussion colors), each sharing Odysseus and several other roles, but each with his or her special quality: Robinson's operatic bursts; Clark's quietly building force; Leong's limber, light-dark embrace; Dowling's generous earth mother vibration (especially as Athena); Santo's commanding, patrician presence.
Unlike a lot of the time-wasters on the Taper main stage, this sideshow is blessed with vitality and cursed with a brief engagement.
"The Wanderings of Odysseus," J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, Friday-Sunday, Oct. 6, 10, 11; 6 p.m. $28; (213) 972-7392 or (213) 480-3232. Running time: 4 hours.