‘Homer’s Odyssey’ Charts The Struggle of The Mythical Hero Odysseus

Odysseus defies Circe, the enchantress, in Homer’s Odyssey: a Retelling by Simon Armitage. Jane Pejtersen (Circe), David D’Agostini (Odysseus). Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Due to sold-out houses and enthusiastic reviews, Handcart Ensemble will remount “Homer’s Odyssey: a Retelling by Simon Armitage” as an Off-Broadway (mini contract) production from October 2 to 18. The production, directed by J. Scott Reynolds, is adapted by one of Britain’s most gifted and prolific poets. It just completed an Off-off Broadway run September 3 to 19 in the downstairs theater at Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan’s East Village. It will resume in the same space.

“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 unique voices of his generation. For New York audiences, the production is a powerful encounter with one of Britain’s most gifted and prolific writers.

The New York Times (Ken Jaworowski) declared, “this adaptation, written by Simon Armitage and presented by the Handcart Ensemble, is so superb that you may find yourself wishing that the playwright would step onstage and take a bow at the curtain call.” The review also heartily commended the actors’ performances, stating “As Odysseus, David D’Agostini is a strong storyteller, guiding the action with ease. John Michalski deftly handles a wide range of characters, from the pompous Zeus to the kindly servant Eumaeus. And Elizabeth Ruelas, as both the loyal Penelope and the distraught Anticleia, draws from a deep well of emotion.”

NYtheatre.com (Martin Denton) wrote, “Handcart Ensemble, one of New York’s most invaluable though less-well-known treasures, has brought a wonderful new translation of this epic tale to the stage – .This Homer’s Odyssey is a treat for all who appreciate the marvels that well-chosen words and simple stagecraft can accomplish.”

Talkin’ Broadway (Cindy Pierre) wrote, “Every once in a while, an interpretation of a classic makes us want to thumb through the original to not only compare and contrast, but to see if and how – with incredulousness – the first telling of the narrative could possibly be better. Such is the case with poet Simon Armitage’s contemporary adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. ”

The dramatization by Simon Armitage was originally commissioned by the BBC. It 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.

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.” For more info and a chronology of Handcart’s productions to-date, visit www.handcartensemble.org.

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.

The 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 October 2 to 18, 2009. The show is presented by Handcart Ensemble in cooperation with Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street. Show times are Mondays at 7:00 pm, Wednesdays-Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 pm; Sundays at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $25; the box office is www.brownpapertickets.com, 800-838-3006. The play’s website is www.handcartensemble.org.