Fantastic Voyage
The Odyssey. Adapted by Richard Silberg. Directed by Amy Sass. Starring Keith Davis, Beth Donohue, Sandie Armstrong, and Ali Dadgar. Set and puppets by Michael Frassinelli. At Ohlone Park, Martin Luther King & Hearst, Berkeley, Aug. 8. Continues at Mosswood Park, Webster & MacArthur, Oakland, through Aug. 23. Call (510) 655-0813.

Not even Aristophanes had the audacity to put all of Homer's Odyssey onstage, so any modern effort should either be admired for its temerity or carefully avoided. The story behind this performance is that Richard Silberg, a teacher at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, wrote a condensed version for his students to perform, and the Shotgun Players saw in his script the chance to put on an impossible-sounding outdoor show that included puppets (like last year's Midsummer Night's Dream). The result is pure entertainment. There are towering puppet gods, a Wise Fool-style Cyclops, waving blue tarps for the swaying sea, original a cappella musical numbers, and -- as a concession snack -- "cyclopsicles."

It was written for kids, and in the first half the Shotgun cast tends to play down to the audience, but the whimsicality at work makes this show more interesting than any of the overserious screen versions you can rent or catch on TV. And by the end, somehow, Silberg's script brings out a measure of pathos and profundity that you don't expect to find around midafternoon in a public park.

The weakest part of the play is that it's narrated by "Aleithia," a sort of matron-muse of memory, who was flat-out invented by Silberg to make his job easier. I saw an understudy named Carolyn Padilla do the part; she overintoned and seemed underprepared. And most of the other parts have a happy enthusiasm that grates at first, especially Michael Storm's fey rendition of Hermes. (Actually Hermes is annoying all the way through.) But Beth Donohue plays Penelope with an effectively melancholy tear in her voice that gives the show weight, and Keith Davis is an amusingly arrogant and heartfelt Odysseus. Their performances carry the show at the end, through Odysseus' speech about mortality and love -- which nicely unifies the script -- and all the way to the excellent final scene, when Odysseus proves his identity and Penelope her chastity through the riddle of the marriage bed.

Scylla and Charybdis are missing altogether, which is too bad. One reason I went to the show was to see the octopus-beaked sea monster and the abysmal whirlpool rendered onstage. But I guess glossing over them is excusable. Zeus is played by Antoinette Abbamonte, a deaf actress who signs her words and manipulates the papier-máche godhead while two other players intone the words for the listening audience. (Two ASL interpreters sign the rest of the show for the deaf.) The Lotus Eaters are evoked in a swaying lotuslike dance by Marin Van Young and Amy Sass (another understudy); and Polyphemus is a magnificent, wisecracking, papier-máche puppet that eats people whole and bleeds crimson streamers from his eye sockets. Details like this are what give the Shotgun Players their energy. They're not afraid to fail, so when they succeed it feels spontaneous, ragged, and fun.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Private Lives
Private Eyes. By Steven Dietz. Directed by Louis Parnell. Starring Finn Curtin, Linda Whalen, and Susi Damilano. Presented by the Dreamstackers and Genesius Theater Company at Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Mason), through Sept. 5. Call 675-4796.

Steven Dietz's Private Eyes begins innocently enough, with an auditioning actress playing a waitress who flirts with a patron. After a few lines, the director cuts her off. She's not relating to the customer. Why? "Because right now he's a chair," she retorts. "Can't you play a love scene with a chair?" he demands. "[Isn't] the lover we imagine actually more real than the one before us?" No, she insists, he isn't, and what existed between them would be neither love nor acting, but vanity. "Acting is someone standing in front of you want[ing] something from you -- and you from them -- and through some combination of bloodshed and eloquence you find your place with each other. That is acting."

Private Eyes delights in mixing up his kind of acting with hers -- illusion and projection with intimate truths. Toppling the director from his superior perch, this woman has our full attention until the real director appears, shouting, "Great. Let's take five." We assume everything so far has been an act (which means, the waitress-actress would argue, it's been emotionally true). But we find out seconds later that this play-within-the-play is but a microcosm of a drama of seduction and betrayal transpiring between real director Adrian (Bill English), real actress Lisa (Linda Whalen), and real husband Matthew (Finn Curtin). Or at least, that's what we believe until Dietz peels off yet one more layer. We come to feel toward the play the way Lisa's poor befuddled actor-husband Matthew does toward his wife. Half the time he's positive she's cuckolded him and the other half he's positive he imagined it. Absolutely committed to the current truth even though the last one fell through, he's miserable and we're having fun.

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