Greek drama is updated to the age of AIDS in the Redhouse’s Odysseus DOA
Playwright-director Stephen Svoboda gives away plenty in the title of his new AIDS-themed play, Odysseus DOA. Although the acronym DOA must be a police term, “dead on arrival” at some precinct, we know it better as a narrative device from a 1950 movie. Stretching all the way back to Edmond O’Brien in the heyday of film noir, it denotes a story in which a dying man seeks to find how he faces such a plight.
Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses) is the hero of Homer’s second epic who survives 18 adventures trying to find his way home. Much of what we usually think of as suspense has just evaporated: a man comparing himself to Odysseus and facing certain death examines his life. Yet the resourceful Svoboda has many, many more tricks in his bag, as theatergoers will discover in the current mounting of Odysseus DOA at the Redhouse. 201 S. West St. Protagonist Elliot Hayes (John Bixler) is a novelist who has become tongue-tied. He coughs out speeches in a kind of pidgin baby talk, without adjective or qualifiers. Frustrated by his inarticulateness, Elliot writes constantly in a lined notebook, including every word of dialogue spoken by all characters.
Inviting us to examine the deeper reality of what Elliot writes, John Czajkowski’s lighting design projects the lines on the set as the action is taking place. As there is no screen, we catch the projected words on whatever surfaces are at hand so that much of what we see is fragmentary. All the same, it’s a bit disconcerting to hear what feels like spontaneous dialogue, even with jokes, and see it flashed before our eyes to remind us that every word is prepared, as of course they are.
It is in Elliot’s journal that Svoboda presses the protagonist’s identification with Odysseus, which might not have occurred to us otherwise, and spells out who should be whom in parallels from the story we see and the ancient epic. The device allows Svoboda to act as his own Cliff’s Notes so that when Elliot tells us he aspires to kleos we have the correct spelling flashed before us and hear a definition: glory or renown, especially as achieved in death.
As Elliot affects a kind of stoop, we learn that he is approaching his last hours as he enters a hospital ward populated with patients suffering from advanced cases. Svoboda has said in interviews that his play can be compared with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so we find some colorful characters among those facing death but no Nurse Ratched. The medical personnel, lovely Nurse Dorothy McCarthy (Kate Metroka) and youthful Dr. Roberts (Darian Sundberg), turn out to be generous and consoling, but when harridans are called for they show up in the persons of patients’ mothers.
The least sympathetic among the patients is bully-boy Nick (Brett Davenport), who repeats his denial that he is infected with every push-up. Blessed with a resonant baritone and a beefcake torso, Davenport’s Nick looks like the macho jock that would have beat up the gay boys on the playground. Tennessee Williams got revenge on just such a character in his portrayal of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As the action progresses Nick loses his sight, prompting Elliot’s elbow nudge that he is the stand-in for Polyphemus the Cyclops in the epic.
Much of the humor in Odysseus DOA comes from two African-American characters, Maha Swenson (Maha McCain) and Resean Williams (Temar Underwood). Maha, with her pulled-down knit cap, is a creature of unashamed appetites, who craves McDonald’s food and the advertising promise of that happy-meal franchise. Underwood’s Resean is a linebacker-sized transsexual in heels, given to dispensing wry wisdom. This wisdom, we are reminded, equates Resean with Athena.
It turns out that actor Temar Underwood’s middle name is Resean (“reh-SHAWN”), an unmistakable sign that the role of Resean was written for him, just as Maha was written for Maha McCain. No matter how much art-imitates-life there is in the writing, both are somehow familiar personages. Maha resembles an outspoken street girl in the early Whoopi Goldberg monologues, while the wise and witty black tranny has become a fixture in gay dramaturgy: Chiwetel Ejiofor in Kinky Boots, Ving Rhames in Holiday Heart, the Lady Chablis in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. McCain and Underwood were pals of Svoboda at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, 10 years ago when the first drafts were written and followed him to a New York International Fringe Festival production in 2004 and to his current home at the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts in Blue Mountain.
Redhouse artistic director Laura Austin learned of Svoboda and his play on the arts circuit and so invited them to Syracuse. Here she is cast as Elliot’s initially strident mother, Mrs. Margaret Hayes, who follows the widest arc of any character. At first she is all prickly jabber, forgiving herself for watching Murder She Wrote when she could have been reading to her son. We see her differently when she is contrasted with the demon mom of another patient, Mrs. Collins (Binaifer Dabu). Upon her entrance she finds her son stretched out on what will be his deathbed and snarls, “Your father and I warned you this would happen!” That patient is the punk-haired Adam Collins (Adam Perabo), who will become Elliot’s end-of-life lover, a step in his reach for kleos. He is not a male Penelope, however, an abandonment of the Odyssey conceit. Meanwhile his mother’s bilious anger fuels the threat of lawsuits at the most trifling happenstances, which softens and humanizes Elliot’s mother, leading to their reconciliation. What readies Elliot for that moment is his journey to the Underworld, the realm of dead, where he encounters his serene first lover, Ethan (Nathan Young), who counsels forgiveness.
Odysseus DOA runs nearly two hours without intermission and overflows with nervous, sometimes digressive energy. Svoboda, who also serves as director, seems determined that there will never be a dull moment. For much of the first half the set is constantly in motion, with beds, screens and medical equipment flying around on silent casters across Michiko Kitayama’s set, flanked with two white columns, hinting at a proscenium. Kristi McKay’s costumes help define character, especially for the patients.
With Odysseus DOA, the Redhouse has returned to its roots in Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse, bringing us edgy new voices willing to take risks.
This production runs through Saturday, Jan. 29. See Times Table for information.
Grecian formula: Cast members assemble for the Redhouse’s production of Odysseus DOA.