Sunday, November 21, 2004

Highway Ulysses (Dobama)

Dobama present multi-award winning 'HIGHWAY ULYSSES'

‘Highway Ulysses,’ now being presented in its midwest premiere at Dobama Theatre, began as a workshop at ART (The American Repertory Theatre) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It tells the story of Ulysses, a Vietnam war veteran who receives an urgent call in the middle of the night which causes him to embark on a journey to find his son. A journey, much like the that of the mythological Ulysses, in which he must come in contact with and conquer creatures, fears and beliefs. On his way, he gets waylaid by a kaleidoscope of characters including a waitress at a truck stop, a one-eyed librarian, and a woman in a tattoo parlor. These bizarre characters embrace Ulysses, forcing him to confront his violent past and propelling him on to accomplishing his task.

Rinde Eckert, who authored the play, is not unique in his use of the traveler motif. The odyssey concept was the model for Mark Twain's ‘HUCKLEBERRY FINN,’ Jack Kerouac's ‘ON THE ROAD,’ as well as Homer's ‘ODYSSEY.’

‘HIGHWAY ULYSSES’ started out as a solo piece that Eckert, who is a writer and a performer as well as a composer, wrote for himself. The work has been transformed into a multi-character construction.

Eckert states of the piece, “When I looked at ‘THE ODYSSEY,’ I started asking questions about the relationship between a returning war hero and the operations of a state. I understand the search for redemption in the original play, though I'm skeptical of the degree to which Odysseus is redeemed, given his opacity and lack of self-criticism. He never reproaches himself, though his failures are legion.”

As for the musical aspects, the sound is both atonal and archaic-sounding, incorporating chanting as well as the sung and spoken word, and is not always pleasing to the ear.

The play is a difficult piece to breath life into. It is basically a monochromatic with little variance of texture in either the music or the words. With this said, Dobama gives the play a creditable if uninspired production. Sonya Robbins has tried to make the journey one of clarity, but that is hard to do as much of the meaning is implied, not readily obvious. In spite of the fact that most of the cast are actors, not necessarily singers, the sound is acceptable because this is not music that needs well trained singers. The points to be made are in the words, not in their musical sound.

Paul Floriano is properly tortured as Ulysses. He develops a consistent character who acts from emotions, from flashbacks, rather than rational clarity. Meg O’Halloran’s portrayal as the son lacked idea development. Her quiet singing and speaking is difficult to hear. Juliette Regnier is excellent as the waitress, siren and wife. The rest of the ensemble cast--Brittany Hicks, Kimberly Koljat, George Roth, Joe Milan, Ray McNeice and Alison Hernan--perform effectively.

Musical director Josh Senick has assembled a fine group of musicians who play the difficult music well.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In spite of the play being selected as the Best play of 2003 by the Boston Globe and winning the Norton Award for Best New Play in Boston ‘HIGHWAY ULYSSES’ is definitely not a show for everyone. The ninety-minute production is performed without an intermission, but still makes a long sit as there is not a great deal of action and a there are a lot of words.