Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Quantum Stages a Refreshing, More Casual Look at a Greek Epic

Sam Turich (foreground), Erika Strasburg, Sam Lothard, Grace Vensel, Shammen McCune, Nancy McNulty Credit: Heather Mull

    There’s a lot of good, and some might say great, art making going on at the Ice Skating Rink in Schenley Park. An unlikely place for such an endeavor you say. Guess again.

    Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a talented crew to put together a memorable production of An Odyssey, now snuggling nicely in the Schenley Park rink that suggests the feel of an ancient Greek amphitheater. Use your imagination here.

    Squint your eyes and look at the setting sun through the line of evergreens that serve as a natural backdrop for the epic story and you’ll think you were on Calypso’s Island of Ogygia or the isle of the Cyclops. Especially with the assertive noise of waves crashing against the shore aurally fabricated  by sound designer Joe Pino.

    As I said, it takes an exceptional crew to navigate the sometime turbulent waters of Homer’s epic poem, and Quantum Theatre’s artistic director, Karla Boos, seems to have assembled an artistic team up to the task. They start with Jay Ball, who admits to have freely adapted (and condensed) the story, and seasoned director, Jed Allen Harris

    As an introductory brush up to Homer, “The Odyssey“ is a 12,000 line poetic sequel to the Iliad, a narrative account of the Trojan War in which Odysseus played a major role. (He was one of the soldiers hidden in the Trojan Horse).

    Both works date back to the 8th Century B.C.E., a time that predated the Greek alphabet. History attributes the blind poet, Homer, as the author, although this is still open to conjecture. “The Odyssey is a string of stories of history, myth and legend, originally recited orally by rhapsodes, They tell of his 10-year quest to return home to his wife Penelope and island of Ithaca.

Nancy McNulty (foreground), Shammen McCune, Erika Strasburg, Grace Vensel Credit: Heather Mull

    The narrative begins near the end of Odysseus’ journey when he washes ashore alone on the island of Scheria, shipwrecked  after a violent storm at sea. Quantum’s play begins a few moments before when we see a trio of young maidens playfully tossing a beach ball in front of a lounging and bored Princess Nausicaa (Erika Strasburg). The maidens (Shammen McCune, Nancy McNaulty and Grace Vensel) set the casual, somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone for what comes next.

    For an original text full of gods, demi-gods and military heroes, Ball designs his characters with more humanly accessible traits and his narrative with a good bit of humor. This, however, doesn‘t underplay by much the thoughtful, more somber elements of the story. The Greeks after all are lovers of stories with moral lessons as in, for instance, “Aesop’s Fables.”

    Himself the grandson of god, shipwrecked Odysseus (Sam Turich), exhausted by his ordeals, shows his mortal side looking much like the Tom Hanks character in “Cast Away” when he’s discovered by the maidens. Bronzed and bearded, like the seasoned seafarer he is, he’s pummeled, beaten, subdued and humiliated by the trio of viragoes behind a white sheet. Only his shadow appears on the screen in silhouette during the melee

    As he’s made presentable, again behind the screen, we hear primping and preening noises like water runoff from a shower, the buzz of hair clippers and the brushing of teeth. Restored to a fit-to-be-seen appearance, he soon draws the attention of Nausicaa, who grows ever more enraptured with him as he begins the stories of his odyssey. She follows his tales from island to island, their boat being none other than the serviceable luggage rack you see in hotel lobbies.

    As his tale begins, he’s shown with members of his crew, actors McCune, Vensel and McNaulty getting double duty as assorted characters. First stop, the island of the cyclops, where he encounters the giant shepherd with one eye, Polyphemus (Sam Lothard). Ball’s adaptation of the character is less ferocious than Homer’s original. Nothing I recall mentions his desire to dine on rather than with  Odysseus and his crew. Nevertheless, he suffers the same fate that befell the Homeric original, that of having his one eye dashed out by Odysseus sword that Quantum renders  with a gruesome theatrical authenticity.

    Lothard, too, plays multiple roles and is later seen as an out-of-breath, exhausted Hermes in a hilarious scene dressed in the standard brown uniform of a UPS delivery man. The irony of having Hermes, the messenger of the gods, shown in such asphyxiated circumstances is a delicious touch.

    Although many of the gods favor Odysseus, Poseidon is the fly in his ointment. As the father of Polyphemus, he’s more than upset with Odysseus’ behavior toward his son and sets obstacles in his goal of getting back home to Ithaca.

    The cause of the next ten years of wandering and island hopping, however, seems to be just as much Odysseus’ fault as Poseidon’s. Our wanderer seems to enjoy his free rein away from the responsibilities of marital life and even turns adulterer when he succumbs to the allures of the seductive enchantress, Circe.

    One deviation from the original is the playwright’s departure from having the enchantress change Odysseus’ men into kangaroos instead of pigs. If nothing else, it gives McCune a chance to show off her mimicry skills hopping around Narelle Sisson’s minimal, yet highly symbolic and effective set as a bouncy marsupial.

    As the voluptuous Circe, Catherine Gowl makes her entrance dressed in a revealing costume by Mindy Eshelman with tons of erotic élan, singing an appropriately enchanting song titled “Glory Box.”  Here’s a link to a recording of the song by Portishead on

    As sound designer, Joe Pino is a wizard in selecting appropriate musical accompaniment, some suggested by the playwright, that reinforce the various moods of the narrative. In the scene where Odysseus is tormented by the sirens, he uses a combination of soundscapes made from samples of Persian, Native American and Baltic women singing and vocalizing, then has the actresses chanting and improvising over the top of it.

    Later, when the script calls for a dream sequence where Odysseus becomes Penelope (again Gowl) and Penelope becomes Odysseus, Pino uses a pitch change down on Gowl's’ mic to put her voice in Lothard’s register and a pitch up effect to put his voice in her register. When they talk directly at each other, both mics pick up both of them, so it produces a weirdly chaotic sound in which the audience hears three versions of each voice.

Catherine Gowl, Sam Turich Credit: Heather Mull

    At the end of Odysseus’ story of wanderings and mishaps, he so amazes King Alcinous (Lothard again) to facilitate his return to Ithaca. Instead of a spontaneous reunion of husband and wife, the suspect and somewhat embittered Penelope puts our hero through some loops before her reconciliation.

    In an interesting coda to the play, the audience gets to participate in a journey of its own that climaxes atop a hill overlooking the Pittsburgh skyline. Listen closely for the final line. It’s well worth waiting for, especially if you like icing on your cake.

    On the drive back home after the play, my theater companions said the story reminded him of another about a girl named Dorothy. She too was set on a quest to return to her home and encountered a series of strange, wicked, eccentric and whimsical creatures. At the end of both tales, they remind us that “there’s no place like home.”

    Quantum Theatre’s An Odyssey is at the Ice Skating Rink, 10341 Overlook Drive in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park through September 5. For tickets and more information phone 412-362-1713 or visit website  To view a video preview of the play, go to

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