Getting to the theater was a kind of odyssey in itself. Working and living downtown, it's not necessary for me to own a car and my preferred method of getting someplace is on foot, even though I have a motorcycle. But like Odysseus, I had found myself in some new, unfamiliar places within the past twenty-four hours and now I was on the motorcycle at ten to seven heading home to feed my cat before taking in a play at a theater six blocks from my apartment, which was to begin at 7:30. Plenty of time I thought, and I as rode up Ninth St.- I was mere minutes from home.
That is, until I hit Market Street and came across the 20th Anniversary Critical Mass ride. I watched from the wrong side of a red light as motorcycle cops leading the route pulled into the intersection of Hayes and Larkin and blocked it off to allow thousands of bicyclists to take over the street. Cut off from a straight shot, my only was to veer over to Van Ness, then shoot up that street as fast as I could and hopefully overtake the parade before it hit O'Farrell. The Friday night traffic on the big avenue was, as usual, a clusterfuck, forcing me to weave through the cars. Turning right on O'Farrell, I could just see the beginning of the mayhem., signalled by a river of red brake lights down the street as far as the eye could see. Weaving through more cars and risking a ticket by cruising down the bus lane right past a cop, I pulled the bike into the garage at 7:15. The street was full of cars and buses that weren't moving at all.
I went upstairs, dumped my gear, fed the cat, and hit the street again. At the corner a bus opened its doors to disgorge its passengers onto the sidewalk. They would make it to wherever they were going quicker on foot at this point. I crossed over to Geary and caught the parade again at Jones. Had they decided to use Hyde instead I never would have made it- even pedestrians couldn't get through, though some tried, only to be forced back on the curb or risk getting hit by a bike. Geary was packed with bicycles and throngs of people watching from the sidewalks. I pushed my way through them, thinking I would just make it. I hate being late to a performance. An older guy said something gruff to me but I just ignored it and kept going. At Stockton and Geary the street was a parking lot of cars waiting for the bikes to pass. I saw some people sitting in a cab and wondered how much the fare was going to be and if their driver knew even what was going on. The meter taking their dollars away one tick at a time for what was likely going to be at least 20 minutes. Life is so unfair. I saw Airporter vans full of people, also stuck, increasing the likelihood of missed flights. Welcome to San Francisco- we hope you had a good time, here's one last stress-filled memory of our fair city, especially for you.
Normally I don't even think about Critical Mass because I'm never impacted by it. But as I watched all of this unfurling before me, the ebullient bicyclists riding through the streets and the mix of admiration and havoc created in their wake, it left me with some mixed emotions. It's easy to support until you're the one suffering an inconvenience from it. I'm not including myself in this category- had I left Bernal Heights a few minutes earlier, little of this would have crossed my mind, and being late for a show isn't really a big deal, but the sheer size of all this ride was certainly creating a mess for a lot of folks. Hopefully the hotels and the cab companies had informed their guests and employees, and took precautions to minimize its impact, but I doubt it. San Francisco used to be called "the City that knows how," but it isn't anymore and hasn't been for a long time.
I made it to the theater door at 7:29, in time for The Odyssey: A Stage Version.
The A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program has a little black box on the sixth floor of 77 Geary, and many of the seats were still empty when I walked inside, no doubt due to what was going on outside. They held the curtain for a few minutes, and then the show began (the stragglers, more than a few, were seated discreetly during the play).
It's not an easy task to adapt Homer, though I understand the temptation. Derek Walcott, a Nobel Prize winning poet from Trinidad, took the tale of Odysseus and set it in the West Indies, moving the story to the Caribbean in place of the Aegean. One wonders why he felt compelled to make this significant change and yet leave so many other elements of the original in place that work against this choice- first and foremost the names of the characters, and second, to litter the play in a kind of archaic prose style that recalls the meter of Homer while seemingly disparaging it by failing to make it consistent. In other words, there's a lot working against this play from the onset. That it largely succeeds in the end is a small miracle, but it does.
The most distracting element of this particular staging were the mostly dismal attempts by the actors at West Indian accents- with the exception of York Walker's blind narrator Billy Blue and Lateefah Holder in any the four roles she took a turn in, the accents were all over the map, extending as far as Bangladesh in the case of Raymond Castelán's Odysseus. The unintelligible, inconsistent accents, coupled with Walcott's frequently overwrought dialogue, made following the what the actors were speaking a significant chore through most of the first half. Still, there were a number of strong scenes in the first half, including an exchange between Asher Grodman's Telemachus and Dillon Heape's Menelaus and Lisa Kitchens' appearance as Nausicaa. Heape, who like all of the other cast members except Castalan performed numerous roles, nailed it every time in an impressively versatile outing.
It was only when Circe (Blair Busbee- also as Penelope) enters the story that the West Indian setting starts to make sense, but it's later disrupted by a video projection of a subway- London's Tube, I believe based on the Charing Cross Station which appears out of nowhere (ha ha- get it?). The second half opens with a music and dance number that succeeds extremely well- had everything else possessed this level of execution the West Indies setting would have been really interesting, but these moments were intermittent at best. Still, when Penelope gives Odysseus the test to prove his true identity as her husband, it's delivered beautifully by both Castelán and Busbee and that one moment was worth the entire voyage.
Other standouts in the cast include Nemuna Ceesay as Athena- a beauty with a wonderful singing voice and ample presence. Elyse Price made an entirely convincing Helen and Buzz Halsing did yeoman's work in all of his roles. The costumes came from the A.C.T. Costume Rental shop, and that about sums them up- everyone looked like they were ready for Halloween. Tommy Shepherd music, apart from the one memorable scene mentioned above, was serviceable, as was the choreography by Stephen Buescher. I'm not sure what to ultimately make of Nancy Benjamin's direction- there were scenes that felt perfect and others which came across as total misses. Still, the hits outnumbered the misses, the young cast is quite interesting to watch, and the setting provides food for thought. If your planning on seeing Berkeley Rep's upcoming An Iliad, this Odyssey is a worthwhile trip to take beforehand.
On the way home, the night turned unusually warm, and it appeared that Circe had been busy through much of downtown San Francisco.