This season’s ultimate survivor is Odysseus, the cunning king of Ithaca and brave adventurer who endured a decade of warfare and another 10 years facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles to reach home and the waiting arms of his faithful wife and queen. At Princeton’s McCarter Theater, Homer’s epic “The Odyssey” has been reshaped by Mary Zimmerman, who adapted the work from a translation by Robert Fitzgerald. The text is accessible in keeping up with the abundance of characters who clutter the hero’s vigorous journey, but the production’s many riches stem from Zimmerman’s fanciful and often quite funny staging, Mara Blumenfeld’s inspired costumes and Kirstin Showalter Hara’s imaginative choreography.
Christopher Donahue invests the durable Odysseus with strength and purpose. Dodging demons and appeasing deities on his perilous pilgrimage following the Trojan Wars, he creates a commanding centerpiece for the tale. Mariann Mayberry provides the saga’s most appealing performance in her role as Athena, the goddess of wisdom and master of disguise, who flits about like Shakespeare’s Puck, mending and meddling.
Zimmerman has drafted several funny and fanciful images, putting her own refreshing spin on Fitzgerald’s translation. Hermes (Mario Campanaro), arrives on a bicycle wearing a winged helmet like a dauntless Manhattan messenger. Cyclops (Christian Kauffmann) is envisioned in a giant shadow play, popping tiny struggling and screaming crew members into his mouth, while a possessive boardwalk sea nymph named Calypso (Anjali Bhimani), coils herself around Odysseus with gymnastic agility.
The production is abundant with gimmicky comic book and cinema metaphors. A scurrying young lady in a yellow rain slicker, carrying an inverted umbrella, braces herself against hurricane force winds — created by three standing electric fans — and the saucy, seductive sirens — garbed in flaming red dresses — line up and sing in unison, quickly bringing to mind the sassy dance hall hostesses of “Sweet Charity,” who teasingly lure a big spender.
The journeyer’s reunion with his faithful queen, Penelope (stylishly acted by Felicity Jones), dominates the final half-hour of the turbulent voyage. With the exception of Odysseus’ chilling execution of Penelope’s abundant and muscular suitors, the finale is somewhat sluggish. The tongue-in-cheek whimsy of the first half quickly fades, and the pageant crawls to a numbing conclusion.
While much of the witty movement is justly credited to Zimmerman, Hara’s extended dance sequences are refreshingly original, with “The Suitor’s Dance” especially compelling.
Cast members deftly double and triple in roles as various gods, monsters and seductive nymphs. Incidental music makes infectious use of drums, flutes and even the sitar.
Functionally spare and furnished with several serviceable straight-backed chairs and bamboo poles — which come in handy as props for rafts, oars and weapons — the stylized settings are accented with billowing drapes and an occasional widescreen visual.