Art for art’s sake is sometimes a diet too rich to maintain, yet art that sets out single-mindedly to feed a political agenda almost always fails to satisfy. The Public Theater, whose mission is, in essence, to search for ways of resolving that paradox, never succeeds better than in its Public Works program: a year-round collaboration with community groups in all five boroughs that culminates in a work of participatory theater in Central Park. This year’s production, a 100-minute musical-pageant version of The Odyssey conceived and directed by Lear deBessonet and written by Todd Almond, involves five Equity actors and about 200 nonprofessionals representing youth arts programs, domestic workers organizations, post-incarceration social-service societies, and just about any other kind of group not normally represented onstage. Did I mention the bikers?
They — the Old Bones Motorcycle Club, the N.Y.C. Fire Riders, and the M.L.C. Crew — play Penelope’s rude and boisterous suitors. This is but one of the many clever casting choices that, while serving the story, winks at the storytelling. The goddess Athena is represented by the Bobby Lewis Ensemble, a gospel choir from New Light Baptist Church in Harlem. The friendly Phaecians, who revive the storm-tossed Odysseus on his way back to Ithaca, are played by a bubbly street-dance crew from Brooklyn’s D.R.E.A.M. Ring. A drum corps made up of members of the Marching Cobras, based in White Plains, plays Penelope’s palace guard, punctuating the archery competition by which she tests the suitors with perfect sound effects. But the nonprofessional participants aren’t limited to ensemble cameos; they also play featured roles like Odysseus’s son Telemachus (Jabari Johnson), Penelope’s lady-in-waiting Eurynome (Dorothy Vazquez), and the Phaecian princess Nausicaa (Elizabeth Ely). These roles are rendered in bright, simple colors, as befits the occasion if not always the source: Nausicaa is a Valley Girl; her brother (Travis Raeburn) a mincing Urkel, and their court musician, whom Homer called Demodocus, is here called the “dude with guitar.” (He’s played winningly by Willington Vuelto.) Most of the storytelling has a similarly ingratiating Snark-Lite quality:
ODYSSEUS: I must get home.
DUDE: What’s stopping you?
ODYSSEUS: Long story.
That you can’t always be comfortable calling the community performers amateurs speaks to an underlying assumption of Public Works: that there are many kinds of people capable of making meaningful art in our city. The nurturing of those people is everywhere evident in deBessonet’s marvelously inventive and sometimes haunting staging of their scenes. But the immediately recognizable skill and presence of the leading players, beyond mere stage confidence, is also a crucial part of the experience. Brandon Victor Dixon is an ideal Odysseus, projecting confidence and heartache in equal measure. As the evening’s host and narrator, Todd Almond charmingly performs his own words and music while maintaining a carefully calibrated satire of hostliness; he’s like a third-generation photocopy of a game-show emcee. It’s the Penelope of Karen Olivo, though, as she makes one of her sporadic returns to New York from self-imposed exile in Wisconsin, that provides the emotional anchorage to keep this huge, motley Odyssey from drifting off. Olivo, who won a Tony award for her Anita in the 2009 revival of West Side Story, is one of those magnetizing performers who doesn’t so much demonstrate emotion in histrionic displays as pull it in from the audience. Here, in gorgeous magenta Grecian pleats, she’s heartbreakingly good, giving us a Penelope whose cold sadness is an outer sign of her strength. She also, in a nice bit of double casting, gives us a sex-kitten Circe in a red shimmy-shimmy dress and Chita Rivera wig.
Whether this purpose-built retelling of the tale would hold up under other circumstances is hard to say. It is certainly genial and short enough. The highlight reel of Odysseus’s adventures moves swiftly and wittily form the Cyclops to Circe to the Sirens to Hades to Scylla and Charybdis before heading home. If some other highlights are omitted — the piratical Cicones, the lotus eaters, the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, the sacred cattle of Helios — they aren’t much missed in a version whose main thematic interest isn’t so much wanderings as returns. What are missed, though, are some of the complications and pathos that have made the original so emotionally legible after 2,700 years. Perhaps fearing that infidelity would muddy the bright portrait of Odysseus they wanted, Almond and deBessonet have omitted his longest misadventure, his seven years with Calypso. Similarly suppressed are Odysseus’s hubris and vengefulness; upon his return to Ithaca he doesn’t so much kill Penelope’s suitors — how could he, when they are played by those nice motorcycle guys? — as round them up for a tickle fight. Presumably for the same reason, one of the most famous moments in Western literature has been redacted. Far from dying of joy at the return of his master after 20 years, Odysseus’s dog, Argos, played by a cute mutt named Linnea, took (on Saturday night at least) an extra victory lap around the stage before being coaxed away with a treat.
In art for art’s sake mode, I also have to say that Almond, a songwriter of much promise, does not here try to fulfill it much. His numbers are never less than accurate, by which I mean they are well placed in the story, rhyme meaningfully and accurately, and represent, in their music, apt choices of color and genre for each moment. (Circe’s song “Come with Me” is a habanera accompanied by Flamenco dancers.) Many are wonderfully catchy. But they too often come off as a series of pastiche gestures, lacking individual voice and designed, like the staging, more for the audience than the story. You can feel them reaching too hard for sing-alongism or Big Number thrills. (Dixon belts one that might as well be called “Odysseus’s Turn.”) There’s nothing really wrong with that in this context, except that Almond’s beautiful “dream ballet” interlude, in which Odysseus’s return to Ithaca is narrated and mimed to the accompaniment of the New York Youth Orchestra, shows what he is capable of.
But I guess that’s not the point of Public Works. This Odyssey, along with last season’s Winter’s Tale and the previous season’s Tempest, aren’t primarily professional showcases. They are demonstrations, and I would also say joyous celebrations, of the dream of community. The Odyssey is almost obsessively concerned with the question of who belongs where, a question Almond early on renders in smartly contemporary terms: If we washed up among the Greeks of Homer’s time, he asks, “Would they welcome us? Kindly? If we wandered into their city, who would we meet?” The indefatigably political Oskar Eustis, introducing the production, offered a hopeful answer paraphrased from that urban saint Jane Jacobs: “The city is a machine for turning strangers into neighbors.” On a beautiful night in September in the Park, you could almost believe it.
The Odyssey is at the Delacorte Theater through September 7.