Postcards from The Odyssey #6: Little Moralists

In our on-going series of postcards from the We Players’ production of the Odyssey on Angel Island, Caroline Parsons, who plays Calypso (among other roles), reflects on lessons learned from smaller audience members…

Caroline Parsons as Calypso captures an attractive mortal. Photo by Tracy Martin.

After recent performances of The Odyssey on Angel Island, I have been taken to task by a couple of outspoken little girls. This happens after a scene in which I portray the sea nymph Calypso, who had detained Odysseus for seven years in her loving grasp before Zeus compelled her to let him go. As the scene ends she professes her love for mortal men and her outrage at having lost Odysseus to his homeward journey. One day, as I tearfully bade the audience of delightful and attractive mortals farewell, an elementary aged girl with an indignant chin approached me, saying, “Why are you crying? Odysseus isn’t your husband.”

Caroline Parsons as Calypso entreats Telemachus (James Udom) to stay with her on Ogygia. Photo by Tracy Martin.

Watch out Mary Magdalene, the morality of little girls is coming to vilify you! I improvised, as I am wont to do in this interactive scene, “I know…but I loved him.” The fierce crusader in stretch pants and silver embroidered sweatshirt assessed the veracity of the statement shrewdly, and granted, “I believe you” with a curt nod of her head before walking away with her hands on her hips. Another informed girl tore off a bracelet one of my nymphs had given her, a gift representing an eternal promise to stay with Calypso on the island of Ogygia, and slinging it angrily to the sand she said, “This is a reciprocal situation!” meaning, well, I’m not entirely sure what. What was clear was her immense mistrust of the goddess Calypso and her attempt to wrap the audience in binding chains of love as she had done to Odysseus. These opinionated children are coming to the show having read The Odyssey, probably in the company of an intelligent adult partner, but they do not need help understanding the archetypal characters in Homer’s world: the war hero with the fault of hubris, the faithful wife, the beautiful temptress, the evil sorceress, the good son- we know them by heart already. The work of theater is to bring them to life in a way that challenges the audience’s expectations but leaves them saying, “I believe you”.

Libby Kelly as Penelope and James Udom as Telemachus in the final scene of The Odyssey on Angel Island. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

WePlayers is a company built to shake expectations: Alcatraz is a stage? An audience can walk 3.5 miles during a show? This Odyssey doesn’t end with Odysseus’s home coming? Nowhere is this expectation breaking more apparent than in the ending of this production. In the last scene we find Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife who has awaited his return from the Trojan War without remarrying for 20 uncertain years, crying because Odysseus has finally returned home: only to slaughter the men who have besieged her household, the serving girls in tow, and then leave again immediately. In Homer’s poem he comes home to stay and there is a happily ever after ending. In this production, why he has departed so quickly is interpreted variously by the different characters. The old school nurse Eurycleia believes he has gone to absolve himself of the bloodshed with prayer, the politically minded Mentor believes he has left Ithaka to avoid attack by the island families whose sons he has just slaughtered, and it is Penelope who has the wisdom to see that whatever the reason for his departure, he is a changed man after the war and she can no longer spend her life in waiting for the man she once admired. He is gone forever. A brilliantly emotive Libby Kelly portrays Penelope’s descent into despair. A little girl stands nearby and queries, “Why is the princess crying?” I do not know how her adult answered her, perhaps with a lengthy discourse on how war can change a person, on how twenty years away from your spouse is not automatically bridged, something about betrayal, or most likely, “Because she’s sad.” In either case the adult is being asked to describe a complexity of emotion that is often absent in the stories our children see on screen or read before going to bed. In contemplating the significance of my work with WePlayers, I am reminded of a genre of story called temblon, described by the writer/researcher Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves: “[The temblon] overtly entertain, but are meant to cause listeners to experience a shiver of awareness that leads to thoughtfulness, contemplation, and action.”

Claire Slattery, Frieda de Lackner and Joan Howard surround Caroline Parsons as they prepare her for the ritual eating of the Lotos. Photo by Tracy Martin.

After performing a trance in the Lotus Eaters scene I am left dangling limply on a long rope in a round depression at an old military site. From this seemingly lifeless state I have the pleasure of overhearing audience members’ reactions as they depart. The voice of a little boy follows an eager run to the edge of my cavern, “Pit of Shaaaaame!” he denounces gleefully. On another day I hear an adult say to a young girl who wants to know why I am down there, “Because she is a bad girl a very very bad bad girl.” The subtleties of the scene have been missed, surely, since the Lotus Eaters’ ritual is a communal one in which the drinking of the Lotus juice induces a clairvoyant and exhaustive trance, the culmination of a meditative group oracle ceremony. However, the use of our play as a version of the traditional warning folktale is no less important than an interpretation more closely aligned with our intentions. I imagine that next time that curious girl doesn’t clean her room or do her homework her adult counterpart can remind her of what happened to the “bad bad girl” in that Odyssey play. The child, who was so concerned about my well being, may have a strong reaction to that! I say, let’s come into the theater like children: full of righteous ideas, full of passion, and ready to be swayed and taught by what we see. I say, let’s care that much.

The cast and audience of The Odyssey on Angel Island dance in Aolia, the land of the wind. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

–Caroline Parsons

Caroline Parsons is a freelance theatre, dance and yoga instructor and teaching artist. She last performed with We Players in their Hamlet on Alcatraz.

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