Forgotten by all but a handful of his closest friends and relations, the weary traveler Odysseus makes his way homeward to an uncertain fate. His house has been all but taken over by a horde of ill-mannered suitors who seek to replace him not only as lord of the manor, but also as husband to his wife Penelope. His son Telemachus, who has journeyed far in search of his missing father, has nearly given up hope of his return. Even the status of his relationship with his beloved wife remains uncertain, for though she has successfully resisted the suitors all these years, she resents the long wait her wandering spouse has caused her to endure. Even if they are reunited, the process of picking up their marriage and starting over again is a daunting one.
This is the kind of moment of maximum uncertainty that fascinates Peter Lackner, the director of Boxtales Theatre Company’s acclaimed stage production of Homer’s The Odyssey, which is scheduled for a return engagement at the Lobero Theatre next weekend. The stakes are high, the layers of the story are multiple, and in the middle of it all stands a man with a world of experience and a simple desire-to come home.
Boxtales is a classic Santa Barbara arts organization, hearkening back to the 1950s-era artists’ guilds that once held sway over the city’s aesthetic and social life. Communal, hard-working, and democratic, the members of Boxtales have pursued their vision of epic theater through thousands of hours of research, discussion, rehearsals, and performances. Their collective creation retains the primal flavor and appeal of the ancient oral narrative while adopting a range of techniques from acrobatics to mime. The most spectacular element of the Boxtales’ Odyssey remain the giant silk ribbons that allow the performers to fly through the interior of the Lobero, but there are plenty of other memorable aspects to the production, and there are bound to be new highlights to this version. The cast includes Boxtales producers/performers Jeff Mills, Matt Tavianini, and Michael Andrews. The men will be joined by Joanne Lubeck and Stephanie O’Neill, who between them will play all the female characters, including, of course, the memorable goddesses.
In talking with Peter Lackner about the play, I was struck by the almost magical confluence of personal talent, family history, and the power of place that has come to bear on this production. Lackner described his childhood as the son of founding members of Santa Barbara’s vibrant bohemian artistic community of the 1950s and ’60s. He mentioned that his German-speaking mother, who was unable to find in the English language an appropriate forum for the expression of her original talents, took up pottery. She belonged to the Santa Barbara Clayworkers Guild, Lackner said, recalling, “She and my father used to go to the flats by the beach in Carpinteria and dig the red clay that she would throw.” What could be more elemental, more true to the spirit of this ancient tale and the culture from which it springs than this picture of a couple, displaced halfway around the world by war, going to the seashore to dig for that most Greek of materials, the clay that will make the vase of civilization? This incredible image flashed a beacon of light on the connection Lackner and the other members of Boxtales feel with The Odyssey, a story about making your home by (sometimes literally) crawling up out of the ocean.
As a former chair of the UCSB Theater Department and an internationally experienced director of such traditional works as Goethe’s Faust, Parts I and II, Lackner carries around in his head quite a load of theatrical knowledge and memories. Methodical and possessed of a deep respect for the playwright’s craft, he will read a play slowly and carefully several times before allowing himself to give the work his directorial stamp. This may seem an impossible level of attention to detail for such a long and complex work as The Odyssey, but somehow, miraculously, this is not so. When asked how they managed, Lackner credits fellow company members, singling out Jessica Bortman for her work on the script adaptation. After all, just reading the original out loud can take 20 hours. Lackner has other ideas about what brought him to the project, saying, “It’s also a little like Faust, Part II.” And with that remark he is off and running again, thinking aloud about two of the most complex works of literature in history, and making it all seem as simple and gratifying as gathering and shaping our native clay.
The Odyssey will play at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) from Thursday, May 24, through Saturday, May 26, at 8 p.m., with a matinee performance on Sunday, May 27, at 2 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit boxtales.org or call 963-0761.