You know you've made it to the big time as a classic literary figure when entire dramatic productions are rooted in your heroics and you don't even need to show up for the show. The larger-than-life absence in Round House Theatre's Crown of Shadows: The Wake of Odysseus is none other than Homer's prolific Greek protagonist, who looms over the action throughout the play but never actually makes an appearance. But in this drama that's the whole idea: The twist on the epic story here is its contemporary examination of the people and places Odysseus left behind.
In this world premiere, playwright Jason Gray Platt and director Blake Robison have shifted the focus to Odysseus's wife, Penelope, and teenage son, Telemachus, as they struggle to maintain power in an increasingly restless Ithaca while awaiting their husband and father's return from war. Platt's script feels modern in its language, interactions, and relationships (costume designer Bill Clarke also trades togas for T-shirts), but the traditional structure and sentiments, soaked in the requisite blood and glory of Greek tragedy, are ever-present. The stylistic balancing act is one of this production's strong points. Julia Proctor, in her role as Telemachus's love interest, Calliope, is another. Out of the four-person cast, Proctor's layered interpretation stands out for its subtle evolution and natural delivery. As Telemachus, Michael Morrow Hammack develops his unsettling character more abruptly, in sharp, sometimes shocking arcs.
The fluidity of time and mood can work against the production at times: While she emanates the necessary regal air, the striking Deborah Hazlett seems to be stuck between the stiff formality of the classic Greek story and the rawer modern vision in her portrayal of Penelope. Taking on multiple roles, Jefferson A. Russell completes the solid ensemble.
As with Shakespeare and other time-honored works, the source material here has been mined and warped, told and retold for centuries, and writers and directors are still finding ways to channel Homer's endlessly relatable characters and universally human themes through their work. Platt's interpretation is fresh enough to distinguish itself from other iterations, taking liberties and paving enough new plot paths to keep things interesting and thought-provoking. But drawing from those dramatic ancient Greeks also means that by the show's end there are mouthfuls of character names, tangled relationships, and vendettas to keep straight, and without at least a cursory knowledge of Homer's original stories, motives and meanings can get confusing. The play's sudden shift from merely ominous and haunting to dark, violent, and bloody is startling, which may have been the intended effect, but a more delicate build-up that gave the tension time to simmer might have been more powerful.
Even without a cameo from the Trojan warrior himself, Shadows is able to tap the legendary aura and humanity of the story and build on it. The result is entertaining--but not quite a classic.
Crown of Shadows: The Wake of Odysseus runs at Round House Theatre Bethesda through May 6. Tickets ($10 to $61) are available through Round House's website. The play contains nudity, violence, and adult themes and language and may not be appropriate for all audiences.