Back in the ’90s, I spent every day for about three weeks in a medium-security INS detention center in Florida. Hundreds of law students, myself included, were shipped there to process boatloads of Haitian refugees fleeing military violence in the chronically distressed country. It seemed crazy then, and it seems crazy now, that the U.S. government would throw a bunch of people in jail who were so desperate to escape their brutalized country they braved the Atlantic Ocean in dinghies the size of bathtubs. Talk about a suicide mission.
I interviewed one guy who pulled his orange jumpsuit up to reveal a network of crisscrossed whip scars on his back—mementoes from his stay at Forte Demanche, the notorious prison/torture chamber built by Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier. I would’ve thought his back was argument enough for political asylum. Not so. He’d been stuck in the detention center for months.
The Odyssey is the highly anticipated, first full production of Mother Road Theatre Company, a troupe consisting of some of the finest veteran actors in the city. David Farr’s script puts Homer’s wayward hero, Odysseus, in an INS detention center, blown so far off course in his mythic journey home he crosses the Atlantic (and several thousand years) to wash up on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Adding to the conceit, Farr populates the INS center with several Trojans made homeless after Odysseus and his Greek buddies sacked Troy.
The play alternates between scenes from the detention center and Odysseus’ recollection of his strange journey. The journey isn’t altered much from the poem, giving the play a weird, anachronistic feel as it switches from 21st-century U.S.-style interrogation scenes to stylized Greek mythology.
Vic Browder plays Odysseus, and it’s a pleasure to see him back in action in Albuquerque theater. Browder is certainly one of our best, and he’s a huge presence here, eating up the stage with a persona that’s half deranged Hemingway, half Poseidon, Lord of the Sea. The rest of the cast features several local hotshots, such as Kristín de la O as the huge-breasted Circe, Ray Orley as the doddering Cyclops, Jean Effron as one of Odysseus’ crew and William Sterchi as an INS goon. (All these folks take on several other roles, too.) I also really liked K’Lynn Childress as a muse with a beautiful voice, and the rest of the cast does a nice job as well.
That said, the whole thing didn’t work for me. The shifts in tone between classical, almost ritualized drama and goofy comedy are jarring. Likewise, the politics of Farr’s script seem shallow. The connection between Homer’s poem and problems associated with the INS, the war on terror, modern incarceration, etc., just never quite locked in. Farr seems to be aiming at some kind of grand statement, but beyond the platitudes that authoritarianism sucks and war isn’t cool, I have no idea what that message might be. Additionally, the end is clearly designed to pack some emotional punch, but it largely left me cold.
Still, there are many enjoyable moments. The opening scene where Odysseus nearly drowns in a surging sea is inspired physical poetry. The bit with the Cyclops in the cave is hilarious and clever. I also loved William Sterchi’s monologue at the beginning of Act Two for draining the piss out of the whole proceeding.
Parts of the performance seemed a little loose, sometimes even a little rushed. (And this show isn’t short.) I’m familiar enough with these folks to bet the performance will get tighter and better over the course of the run. I don’t like the material all that much, though. Farr’s script feels too contrived, as if doing a retelling of a poem as time-tested as The Odyssey, in and of itself, would be enough to give his play weight.
One of many reasons why Mother Road Theatre Company deserves positive attention is because they recently transformed an old gas station on south Fourth Street into a new performance space. Located almost across the street from Out ch’YondA, one of the fixtures of alternative art and performance in Albuquerque, The Filling Station has a comforting retro vibe that jibes well with the name of its resident troupe. The theater is located in the old garage, and it’s got a ton of character. For this show, Mother Road did an excellent job of changing the interior into a creepy space that feels as much like the bowels of a ship as an INS dungeon.
This show didn’t quite pull it all together for me, but Mother Road has the talent and experience to do wonderful, surprising things. With a slate of educational programs to enhance an ambitious performance schedule, the company has already proven its desire to innovate. Everyone who cares about the future of New Mexico theater should keep a close eye on this crew.