Review by Cody Fullbrook
Up the stairs and through the library doors of the Girls School, Black Martini Productions have returned to FRINGE with The Odyssey (Let’s just call it that from now on, shall we?), a pseudo-sequel to Troy Story, their delightful and tightly run 2021 entry detailing The Iliad. This time around, our four actors take us through Homer’s other famous work, The Odyssey, encountering monsters, mayhem, and malevolence along the way.
The Odyssey is an excellent example of how actors can mesh with one another to create exciting theatre. Our quirky quartet hit lines and marks perfectly, all while moving on and off stage with expertly timed energy, not even slowing down when dashing behind the black barriers serving as the wings of the small stage.
Even while competing with the venue’s cooling unit, buzzing mere feet from everyone’s ears, the audience was completely attentive to the bravado of Hock Edwards’ Odysseus, the dry humour of Erin Craddock’s blind sage, the fop of Thomas Dimmick’s Circe, and the might of Grace Edwards’ cyclops, Polyphemus. Dimmick, Black Martini’s founder, is especially impressive, playing the most roles by a huge margin, effortlessly switching between accents and stances to portray the kind Aeolus, boisterous Poseidon, and countless others. I really did lose count. I blame the Greek names.
It’s a funny play with funny people though this occasionally veers into needlessly eclectic jokes that I suspect the writers included due to it tickling their idiosyncratic funny bones. Blatant and non-transformative references to Shrek, Yoda, Monty Python, SpongeBob, and Studio Ghibli movies, all of which have vastly different target demographics, didn’t need the air conditioners help to fall flat with most of the show’s sedentary spectators.
Like 2021’s Troy Story, The Odyssey adapts to its budget-aware minimalism with the use of cheap props. Aside from some deceptively detailed puppets, Troy Story utilized items you could find at any Red Dot, such as toy swords and themed hats, while actors wore appropriately general stage-black clothes. It had an earnest charm, like that of a primary school play. Conversely, The Odyssey’s actors exhibit bright, unchanging Wiggles-esque shirts, with all their props represented by cardboard cutouts, as if specifically designed for the show but made cheap on purpose. A boat is just a boat, but cardboard. Wine bottles are just wine bottles, but cardboard. And given their inflexibility, they’re never substituted for anything else, or even used that creatively, aside from two actors attacking Odysseus with cardboard mouths attached to their hands, embodying either a multi-headed hydra or a swarm of flying clams. It was difficult to tell.
Homer’s Odyssey, as with all similar tales during the time, isn’t the most digestible story in the world, but thankfully the writers have comically, and necessarily, modernized scenes and characters. For example, a celebration is depicted as a rave and the fabled lotus eater is a stereotypical stoner. Again, Dimmick plays most of these characters with seeming ease, but the plot (The show plot. Not the Odyssey plot) becomes confusing when actors are forced to face conflict with one another. The Odyssey, and any situation where actors are telling a story, risks containing a dangerous narrative device which I’ll call “Fake Improv”, where actors in an obviously rehearsed performance pretend to break character in a phony attempt to lampshade their way to drama or a meta joke. “Fake Improv” can easily destroy a story’s context, and The Odyssey suffers from this literally seconds after it starts as the narrator begrudgingly accepts his own murder at the hands of an egotistical actor. Is he dead? Is he pretending? Are they actors or their characters? Audience participation and actual improvisation would help tidy up this confusion, but without either, The Odyssey is simply too automated to reach its full, engaging potential.
While not a drastic improvement from Troy Story, The Odyssey remains an amusing piece of theatre, performed by clearly enthusiastic actors. Black Martini Productions are a team to look out for, but since covering The Iliad and The Odyssey, they’ll probably move on to something like Hippolytus by Euripides. Suicide and false rape accusations. Comedy gold.