I know you, cookie. You read the words “modern take on The Odyssey,” and you reflexively switch your settings to Dubious. After all, you went into O Brother, Where Art Thou? convinced that setting the Coens loose on Homer’s rosy-fingered, wine-dark text would result in greatness; what you got was Hee-Haw on peyote—and a fatuous prick who sat right in front of you and kept turning to his date whenever anything onscreen stoked memories of Freshman Lit. John Goodman in an eyepatch? “Cyclops!” Babes doing laundry in three-part harmony? “Sirens!” Hey, Harold Fucking Bloom: She gets it, OK? We all do. Now shut the hell up or I swear to God I’ll shove these Red Hots up your ass.
Um. Anyway. Your reticence is duly noted, but put it away; you won’t need it here. Woolly’s world-premiere production of Melissa James Gibson’s Current Nobody brings a light touch, some fresh insights, and, in the person of Christina Kirk as Pen, a performance you keep thinking about for days.
The plot, of course, is literally a classic, but Gibson flips the genders. So now it’s photojournalist Pen who goes off to war and loses her way back, while husband Od (Jesse Lenat) stays at home, raises daughter Tel (Casie Platt), and fends off three avaricious suitors (Kathryn Falcone, Deb Gottesman, and Jessica Dunton). All of this takes place under the watchful, if not exactly caring, eye of their doorman Bill (company member Michael Willis) who grudgingly dispenses advice when the mood hits him.
The tone of Woolly’s production is cool and cerebral throughout, so it takes a while to figure out the piece’s emotional center. But that sustained lightness does serve the jokes well and helps ensure that the source material supports the onstage action, instead of weighing it down. In O Brother, the Coens would make a classical reference and stand back to snigger at it, hoping you’d join them; here, Gibson sprinkles the analogies hither and thither and lets director Daniel Aukin trot past them nimbly. That said, a few too many punning allusions to Homer’s epic remain, and these tend to be a pretty thin gruel (“Go to your loom.” “Go to my room?”). When the actors lean into them too hard, they thud, but that happens less frequently as the evening progresses.
The modern setting, another potential source of ham-fisted parallels, works nicely, in part because Tony Cisek’s design is unobtrusively sleek and effective, dominated by a white wall, which doesn’t stay white for terribly long, and a video monitor, which serves at various times as a television, projection screen, and window to the psyche. It’s on this monitor that we first see Pen (we won’t meet her in person until Act Two). She’s being interviewed on television, and in that interview you suddenly understand where the focus of the playwright’s attention lies.
Pen talks a good game: She pontificates on War, and Journalism, and Art, and Kirk lets just enough self-satisfaction shine through as she does so. Then she’s asked about how difficult it is to go off to a war zone and leave her family behind. “Super hard,” she says, flatly, automatically, and in that moment you locate the heart of the piece. Because of course it isn’t hard for her, not in the slightest, and her husband knows this all too well. It’s not something she’ll be able to acknowledge, even to herself, until she’s been halfway around the world and back, 20 years later. In the meantime, young Tel will be raised by a father who barely sees her, because he can only look through her, past her, at the empty doorway.
In her book Meadowlands, another modern take on The Odyssey, poet Louise Glück used Homer’s characters to pick over this same emotional terrain—the petty cruelties that families visit on one another daily—in, it has to be said, a similar way. Gibson’s language is more heightened than Glück’s, and a good deal less mordant, but the two works inform each other: Both eschew the epic for the intimate, and both are, not for nothing, damn funny.
Take Current Nobody’s barn-burner of second act, in which Pen tells the story of her travels at a press conference, accompanied by a slide show of her photos (designed by Jake Pinholster). This is where the show’s writing is at its tightest—over and over, Gibson’s language builds, defuses itself suddenly, and builds again—and Kirk is at her very best. Dollars to doughnuts the play was built around this scene—it certainly feels more polished, more complete, than what surrounds it. Kirk’s prodigious charisma has a ruthlessness to it. She wants you to see how much Pen lives for moments like this one, and she paces the stage, soaking up your attention, reveling in it.
As stay-at-home dad Od, Jesse Lenat starts the evening so very near the end of his tether that as his lonely vigil lengthens, you wonder how much more frayed he can possibly get. He acquits himself well—you can hear Od’s frustration with his own passivity in every line—but his reunion with Pen lacks the tension you want from it, because he seems like pretty much the same frazzled guy he was in the beginning. As Tel, a deft Casie Platt projects a shrewd, clear-eyed watchfulness and ages from 11 to 20 simply by squaring her shoulders. Michael Willis’ gruff-but-not-particularly-lovable Bill isn’t given much to do, and his motivations remain mysterious, but Willis certainly knows his way around a pregnant pause and employs them to great effect.
Ryan Rumery’s eerie sound design uses static and sourceless, rhythmic tapping to evoke the physical and emotional distance between Od and Pen, while Helen Q. Huang sets the two apart from the rest of the cast by putting them in monochromatic clothes and—in a nice touch—bare feet, to underscore their bond.
If it’s true that, in all of literature, there are really only two plots (Hero Takes a Trip and Stranger Comes to Town), then maybe the reason we’re still reading, and iterating, The Odyssey has less to do with its gods and monsters and more to do with the way it straddles both storylines: hero takes a trip and, in so doing, becomes a stranger. Current Nobody dispatches the trip in a dazzling monologue and spends most of its time meditating on why and how we grow apart from others, and whether it’s possible to grow back together. And it manages to pull all this off under its own power, without needing any help from Emmylou Harris, T-Bone Burnett, or the fat guy from NewsRadio.