In Homer's classic poem The Odyssey, we follow the travails of battle-weary Odysseus (that's Ulysses to you) as he wends his way back home after his diabolically clever defeat of Troy. A new take on this old theme is now in performance at Dobama Theatre. Highway Ulysses, written and composed by Rinde Eckert, is a hypnotic sampling of the Homeric tale, recast as the story of a Vietnam War vet who, a dozen years after his return, is trying to rejoin his son after the death of his estranged wife.
Employing an operatic score that swoops from dissonance to odd melodiousness, and using recitative to move the action forward, Eckert and director Sonya Robbins create a splendidly theatrical experience that offers enormous rewards for those who don't struggle against the play's innovative, disjointed structure. While not a commentary on war per se, Highway Ulysses invites us to see one man's journey through that brutal prism -- and who are we to say this isn't widely applicable? We are often taught, in subtle ways, to love the trappings of war -- perhaps enough to forget its dreadful outcomes.
(To wit: A school in a small Texas town recently canceled a traditional day when boys and girls could dress in the clothes of the opposite sex. Some parents complained that this was turning their kids into homos, so it's been replaced with "Camo Day," when all students wear black boots and military camouflage outfits.)
In Dobama's stylish production, our war survivor is discovered, after a car wreck, by a woman in a bridal gown (a lovely-voiced Brittany Hicks), who represents both Ulysses' dead wife and some of civilization's better impulses. She then relates the man's journey in flashbacks, starting with the phone call he receives, informing him of his son's ward-of-the-state status. Soon he hits the road like a pathologically depressed Willy Loman, his suitcase filled with weapons and his agonized war diary, while his young son (Meg O'Halloran) croons atonal odes to his father from a birdcage-like platform set off to one side of the stage.
Fortunately, not everything on stage is quite so surreal. When Ulysses stops at a diner, he is greeted by a waitress, played with matter-of-fact directness by Juliette Regnier, who notices his look of desperation ("You're not gonna kill yourself, are you? I gotta pick up the kids") and then musically shares her desire to escape from her life "like Ophelia, only smarter." From there, the peripatetic soldier meets an overly familiar vet (Ray McNiece in creepily jovial mode) and some folk-tale figures inspired by the original poem. These include a rifle-toting cyclops (a librarian with one eyeglass blacked out, in treatment for "lazy eye") and a female tattoo artist who shares aspects of both Calypso and Circe. With some help from the latter's mushroom cocktail, Ulysses catches a glimpse of the underworld before his final confrontation at home.
Beyond the reworking of certain intriguing segments of the Odyssey story line and some witty dialogue by Eckert ("Still pissing on yourself and calling it baptism?"), the real delight to be had in this production is the fierce theatrical imagination of both the playwright and the Dobama crew. Director Robbins manages her cast deftly through multiple roles, establishing sharply realized characters in mere moments. George Roth is particularly effective as the librarian and as a rapacious lawyer in conflict with another attorney, played with comically biting ferocity by Alison Hernan. But when the actors come together, at times wearing masks, as a chorus commenting on Ulysses' experiences, the play takes on the aspect of Greek tragedy.
Anchoring the 80-minute production, which is performed without intermission, is Paul Floriano as Ulysses. Eschewing any stage pretension, Floriano's haunted vet exists almost as a reverse embossment, as if he were only a fossilized impression of his former self. It's only when he sings that one feels the passion for life that was wrung out of him by the losses he suffered and the pain he inflicted. Adding immeasurably to the overall effect is the strange, droning, often mystical musical background, under the direction of Josh Senick.
Highway Ulysses stretches the boundaries for an audience that doesn't want to be fed shrink-wrapped theatrical pap. This is an experience that will stay with you -- especially when the chorus begs Ulysses to turn around and refrain from sharing his legacy of violence with his son -- a boy who finally emerges wearing a soldier's helmet and carrying a gun.