Theatrical Premiere for Simon Armitage Adaptation of ‘Homer’s Odyssey’

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Homer Odyssey
David D’Agostini as Odysseus. Behind: Cyclops puppet by Marta Mozelle MacRostie, manipulated by Nick Moran. Photo by Nadia Kitirath.

“Homer’s Odyssey” charts the struggle of the mythical hero Odysseus to return home after ten years’ fighting in Troy. Armitage’s treatment is masterful yet broadly accessible. It bristles with the economy, wit and guile that we have come to expect from one of the most individual voices of his generation. In a NY Times review of the published edition (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), James Parker called it a “pincer-move on Homer’s epic,” displaying a “combination of deep attentiveness and refreshing imaginative license.” For New York audiences, the production will be a powerful encounter with one of Britain’s most gifted and prolific writers.

In its eleven productions since its founding in 1999, Handcart Ensemble has attempted to distinguish itself by holding to a high literary standard. NYtheatre.com labeled it “the city’s most reliable and interesting presenter of contemporary renditions of classic theatre texts.” This play’s literary merits notwithstanding, it has the directness and universality to appeal to a wide audience. Director J. Scott Reynolds writes, “We are producing this play because of how it depicts the capacity of the human heart to endure all for the sake of family and loved ones.” He considers the production suitable to children over ten and recommends it for young people who have had the Odyssey in their school curriculums.

This dramatization of “The Odyssey,” commissioned by the BBC, was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2004 and is still available through BBC Worldwide at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/the_odyssey.shtml. The piece was published by Faber and Faber in May 2006 and by Norton in the US. For the practical needs of a staged production, Handcart Ensemble has abridged the script from four hours to just under two.

Handcart Ensemble produces new adaptations, new translations, and new works for the theater, drawing primarily from classical sources. It combines bold, inventive staging with language-rich translations. After its “Alcestis” (2007), Martin Denton (nytheatre.com) wrote, “what would we do without this invaluable indie troupe that keeps on finding brilliant poetic drama that others have somehow ignored?” J. Scott Reynolds is Artistic Director of Handcart Ensemble. He directed and translated its debut production, “Andromaque” by Racine. His other productions with the company include Dreyer’s “Ordet,” the Balzac novel “The Wild Ass’s Skin” (anthologized in Plays & Playwrights 2002 as a verse adaptation), the NY premiere of “The Burial at Thebes” (a version of Sophocles’ “Antigone” by Seamus Heaney) and the Ted Hughes adaptation of Euripides’ “Alcestis.”

Playwright Simon Armitage was born in 1963 and lives in West Yorkshire. He has published nine volumes of poetry including “Killing Time” (1999), “Selected Poems” (2001), “The Universal Home Doctor” (2002), “Travelling Songs” (2002) and “Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid” (2006), all published by Faber & Faber. He has received numerous awards for his poetry including the Sunday Times Author of the Year, one of the first Forward Prizes and a Lannan Award.

Armitage writes for radio, television and film, and is the author of four stage plays, including “Mister Heracles,” a version of the Euripides’ “The Madness of Heracles.” His first novel, “Little Green Man,” was published by Penguin in 2001. His second novel, “The White Stuff,” was published in 2004. Armitage has taught at the University of Leeds and the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and is currently a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. With Robert Crawford, he edited “The Penguin Anthology of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945.” Other anthologies include “Short and Sweet – 101 Very Short Poems” and a selection of Ted Hughes’ poetry, both published by Faber & Faber. “The Shout,” a book of new and selected poems was published in the US in April 2005 by Harcourt.

Armitage’s translation of the Middle English classic poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” was recently released by Faber & Faber in the UK and Norton in the US. He has received an Ivor Novello Award for his song-lyrics in the Channel 4 film “Feltham Sings,” which also won a BAFTA.

Puppet designer Marta Mozelle MacRostie is a puppeteer, puppet builder, props master, theater educator, and jazz vocalist. Last winter she moved to NYC from Hartford CT, where she worked as a designer and builder for various area theaters, and as a puppeteer performing HIV Education shows throughout the Hartford school system. Her largest design project last year was creatingWrecking Ship for the CT based summer Shakespeare company ARTFARM. This was a 30 foot representation of a ship and waves, brought to life by 12 actors and one 10 foot tall stilt-walker. She also creates smaller puppets of all types including hand, rod, marionette, mask and shadow (the last two being the types used in this production of “Homer’s Odyssey”). She studied Puppetry and Music at the University of Massachusetts under Prof. Miguel Romero. While a student, she spent a semester on exchange in the University of Connecticut’s Puppetry Arts Program under Prof. Bart Roccoberton, and a semester in Spain interning with the Spanish puppet company, Los Titiriteros de Binefar. She attended the O’Neill National Puppetry Conference in Waterford, CT several times, where she studied with marionette masters Phillip Huber and Jim Rose, puppeteer humorist Paul Zaloom, and film and television puppeteer Tim Lagasse. She works as a puppeteer with the NYC based company Chinese Theater Works. This is her first theatrical design project in NYC.

The mostly-equity cast includes David D’Agostini (as Odysseus), Jeffrey Golde, Rachael McOwen, John Michalski, Nicholas Alexiy Moran, Jane Pejtersen, Joel Rainwater, Joel Richards, Elizabeth Ruelas, Javen Tanner and Ryan Wood. Original Music is by Nathan Bowen. Fight Director is J. Allen Suddeth. Musical Director/Vocal Coach is Matthew Herrick. Costume Designer is Candida Nichols. Lighting Designer is David Kniep. Set Designer is Tijana Bjelajac. Puppetry and Shadow Effects are by Marta Mozelle MacRostie.

Performances are September 3 to 19, 2009 at Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street, located at 45 Bleecker Street, Manhattan (just like heir name implies). Show times are Mon and Wed-Fri at 8:00 PM; Sat at 1:00 PM & 8:00 PM. Tickets are $15. To buy tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200. Discounts to this and other NY shows with puppets are available at http://www.nypuppets.org.