Until I saw Boxtales Theatre Company’s production of The Odyssey last week, I thought I’d left behind quality physical theater when I left London. All the wild, experimental, thrilling, and effective physical theater I had ever seen was European. I knew vaguely of Boxtales as a children’s theater troupe, and had seen snippets of the company’s work on school cafeteria stages, but I hadn’t realized they trained with James Donlon, a master of movement theater, and I had no idea of the sophistication of their work. I’m learning fast.
Part theater, part mime, part modern dance, part gymnastics, with body percussion, drumming, mask work, and puppetry thrown in for good measure, Boxtales produces some of the least categorizable performance art imaginable. “Children’s theater” is too small a box for what Boxtales does, but how else to describe their brand of theatrical alchemy? In The Odyssey, five performers tell the world’s greatest epic in fewer than two hours, using little more than a few yards of cloth, a collection of acoustic instruments, and some remarkable pieces of headgear. Their Odyssey is spellbinding, magical, and compelling-all the more so for its bare-bones staging, which demands the performers embody the story.
What I’m left with are images: Odysseus in the underworld, visited by the ghost of his dead mother-an actress wrapped in a hanging bolt of white silk; Athena in an orange Mohawk descending from the heavens to touch down in the aisles; the god Hermes in a golden cape and skull cap, gliding across the stage in tennis shoes with wheels in their heels. Though Jeff Mills played the story’s hero in most scenes, the constant flow from narration to dialogue to passages of acrobatic physicality allowed every performer to take on the role of Odysseus in turn.
Like all good physical theater, the production was clearly born from improvisation and play. Peter Lackner’s direction balanced traditional staging and moments of surrealism-at turns eerie and humorous. In the final scene, the slaughter of the suitors was chillingly captured by a pile of Ann Chevrefils’s humanoid masks, hanging eyeless from a wooden staff.