by SOPHIE KERMAN
Charlie Bethel has garnered rave reviews, both locally and nationally, for his one-man adaptations of classic texts from Beowulf to Gilgamesh and, now, The Odyssey. Local critics seem to enjoy listing positive adjectives to describe Bethel’s performance: Dominic Papatola calls him “dazzling”, Ed Huyck says the show is “funny, thrilling, moving, and educational”, and John Olive qualifies Bethel as “impish, lean, charismatic, resourceful and, above all, funny”.
After such a thesaurus of praise, I had high hopes for Bethel’s fast-paced, two-hour adaptation of Homer‘s famous epic. What I got last night, the show’s second weekend, was something entirely different – so different that I left the theater puzzled and, in fact, troubled about whether I ought to review the play at all.
Although the show seemed promising from the outset, it quickly became clear that Bethel was not at the top of his game. Peppered with long pauses and strange, drawn-out final letters (such as Odysseus’s constant longing for “Ithacaaaa”), Bethel’s vocal presentation seemed to be less of a calculated decision for dramatic effect, and more of a means to cover for missing lines. (This, in itself, was odd, as Bethel has performed this play in Florida and Arizona as well; he has had ample time to learn the text.)
While Bethel’s voice projected well, with a strong – though intermittent – sense of energy, his physicality did not. What should have been a billowing sheet (representing a destructively stormy sea) made a lackluster turn around Bethel’s head before being discarded to the side of the stage; a ladder meant to stand in for a ship’s mast in a storm swayed slowly, with none of the violence or urgency one might expect from the wrath of Poseidon. The exciting moments in the text – of which there are many – were most often diffused by Bethel’s imprecise gestures and the slow cadence of his voice.
Every actor has their off nights, and at 2 hours 40 minutes (compared to the promised 2 hours 15 minutes), this was certainly an off night for Bethel. I hesitated to begin my review, however, because of the way he ended the show. The play closes with a truly touching reunion scene between Odysseus and his wife, Penelope. After the final applause, Bethel came back on stage, still visibly moved, even distraught. He gave a fairly standard “if you like this, tell your friends” request, except for one major difference: “I notice,” he said, “that there are a lot of couples in the audience.” With tears in his eyes, he then requested that when we leave the theater, we all “go home and kiss.” He took a bow and quickly left the stage.
Based on this emotional closing, this may have been more than just an off night for Bethel. I am more inclined to speculate that his lax performance was at least partially due to a significant event or situation in his own personal life. The Odyssey, a tale of long separation and hardship, is certainly the type of story that could bring such distressing life events to the fore; this would go a long way towards explaining last night’s performance, which, if other reviews are any indication, seems to have been an anomaly.
I could see, during flashes of comic inspiration throughout the play, that Bethel has a great show to perform. How perplexing that this was not the show I saw.
The Odyssey, adapted and performed by Charlie Bethel, from the epic poem by Homer. March 21 – April 6, 2014 at the Open Eye Theatre, 506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis. Tickets start at $22 from: http://www.walkingshadowcompany.org/.