Commissioned from Rinde Eckert (“And God Created Great Whales”) by the American Repertory Theater, “Highway Ulysses” is a music-theater work with operatic aspirations that more often than not achieves them. A contemporary comment on Homer’s “The Odyssey,” it’s at its best when being sung, particularly by vocally soaring Nora Cole, even though its deliberately archaic-sounding music is as much heightened speech and chant as actual song.
Fact is, Eckert’s piece would be all the stronger if it had more music and less spoken word. And although Eckert’s orchestrations make use of such comparative oddities as theremin, homemade instruments and singing saw, his score is readily accessible, suggesting tangos and waltzes at times amid its steady rhythmic beats and minimalist gestures. The work’s romanticized bleakness, which may be off-putting to some, brings to mind Menotti’s “The Consul,” even though Eckert’s music isn’t remotely like Menotti’s.
“Highway Ulysses” seems intent on pulling the rug out from under heroic myths as a decidedly ordinary and unheroic Ulysses undergoes a cross-country odyssey from L.A. to claim his young son after his wife dies. Along the way, he meets a variety of oddballs before totaling his car and being carried into a wedding reception at the request of the concerned bride (Cole). It’s at this point that the piece begins, the cross-country odyssey then being told in flashback.
The admirable ART production actually begins before it begins, cast members wandering around the barely lit stage, sometimes gyrating to a soft rhythmic beat, as the audience enters. The setting is a wedding reception.
Curtains cut off the rear and one side of the stage. They are eventually drawn to reveal the full width and height of the large stage, transparent walls vaguely reflecting the action and used by Ulysses’ son (convincingly performed by actress Dana Marks) for Brechtian graffiti that the audience can read even though it’s reversed to them. Much of the time, the son is at his computer typing away. A screen is used for the titles of the work’s different scenes, for some of the dialogue and lyrics and for references to Homer.
During his odyssey, Eckert’s Ulysses is involved with a couple of men angrily debating the morality of theft, a panhandling veteran he beats up, a waitress with visions of being an Ophelia (though smarter) floating in a stream, a gun-toting librarian crazed by the fact that his library is to be closed and a female tattooer (Circe, presumably). Most of these characters make dramatic sense, with the exception of the tattooer; the scene between her and Ulysses topples over into the risible.
The cast, including Eckert himself, is strong down the line, notably Thomas Derrah, Karen MacDonald and Will LeBow, for whom the piece was commissioned. If Cole dominates, it’s at least in part because she is the work’s narrator, even getting to play the ghost of Ulysses’ wife, urging him not to contact their son because he would only disillusion the boy.
The work ends, unsatisfactorily, with the son typing his belief that his father is a hero on his computer screen.
All of the production’s elements are first-rate, including Robert Woodruff’s strong direction, Doug Elkins’ choreographed group movement, David Zinn’s cheerless set and David Weiner’s harsh lighting.
Music director Peter Foley and the Boston-based Empty House Cooperative are a tower of strength in the pit.
There’s still work for Eckert to do on “Highway Ulysses,” but it already holds the stage with sufficient power for it to warrant more time spent on it.