[Review:] ITHACA (online).
Ithaca is written and directed by Phoebe Angeni. It is now available to watch on demand through the Edinburgh Fringe website.
I shall start this review by commenting on the sheer eclectic and chaotic nature of this performance.
The vast majority of its content is quite decidedly esoteric, and this is in no way in its favour. I should note that there is, of course, the expectation that audience members will have a sufficient understanding of Greek mythology and its relative pantheon, and it is, indeed, rather just to presume that an audience interested enough to attend this particular performance would certainly possess this relative knowledge. This is acceptable and is not what I refer to when I write here about esoteric material –– although, this focus certainly does not aid the issue of esotericism for audiences unfamiliar with the Odyssey, in particular, and surrounding texts. I shall now elaborate.
There are two main constituents that render this performance pretty much illegible: one is its inconsistent style, and the other is its manner of [dis]organising its content. Starting with style, we are first presented our main character, Nobody (played by Phoebe Angeni), through a soliloquy addressing us directly via second-person narrative, and it is implied, through Nobody's various statements such as the opening line, "You asked if I was happy", that we have been in direct conversation with her up until this point. However, we are then never addressed again, and the text thus loses its quasi-interactive quality and remains self-contained. Moving on to extensive multi-roling and then onto common duologues, then poetry and interpretive movement, the language, form and mode of this performance remain entirely confused. Within the first twelve minutes of this performance, we have already been introduced to all four of these forms that will recur and interchange regularly throughout the performance's entirety, and the result is, naturally and obviously, exhausting. The style is simply far too chaotic and leaves very little time for an audience to breathe and digest the material at hand.
Already in this performance, too, within these first twelve minutes, we have been introduced to completely disparate, disjointed and unfinalised pieces of information. This manner of presentation is not limited to just the beginning of this performance, though; an eclectic overload of seemingly irrelevant and unrelated information persists throughout the entire performance. First, there is the inclusion of Greek gods and goddesses, mythological creatures, etc. But, we are also in America, as connoted by the inclusion of the national anthem, 'O Say Can You See', and archetypal characters such as the valley girl and the [actually, rather offensive] extravagant female hillbilly obsessed with home delights; references to 4th July; and Angeni's bizarre and meaningless [at least, superficially] impression of Donald Trump when voiceovering Posiedon. Furthermore, Nobody is an immigrant who has now been denied citizenship and has no right to remain, and she is also a reject actress; a daughter to a disembodied, demonic voice; and a strong female [feminist?] fat-shamed by whomever she meets. Finally, following on from this latter note, there are also the odd theme of and subtle fixation on sex/gender and sexism, which, I should note, have no real profundity or significance in this text at all; for example, Posedion states that getting your feelings hurt is "a woman thing", or, when Nobody is introduced to Homer, she exclaims, "Homer? That's a man's name, you have a woman's voice." This is a lot to attempt to squeeze into a performance of only one hour's duration, and to do this effectively and coherently takes skill, articulacy and excellent organisation…things this dramatic text does not bear.
Of course, we could relate Nobody's deportation and quest to find home to Trumpian cultural exclusivity and immigration politics, and so this, at least, explains why we find immigration and America in the same context, but this is simply too far a stretch and too big an effort for an audience to consider –– and this is without mentioning that this is only an inference; it is not actually clear at all as to why all of these items coexist within this text. The text needs colossal work insofar as editing is concerned. Simplicity is key! If an element is not necessary, and if its inclusion is in any way negotiable, it is ineffective and must thus be deleted.
I have established that the content itself in this performance is confounding and chaotic, but what of its presentation? Nobody is someone who, as her alias implies, does not know where she comes from, what her name is, her purpose, etc. This play presents her journey of self-discovery as she journeys back home to Ithaca, a home to which she has been deported. So, at the end of the journey, what do we learn? Well…nothing. In fact, Nobody does not even manage to physically reach home, which rather compromises the entire trajectory we have been following all the while we have been watching.
When Nobody does remember things about her previous life, the act of remembering is…weak. For instance, when Nobody remembers that she once had a lover –– yet another item I would delete entirely from this text, given that he features so minutely and has such little effect on the plot, and given the confusing, recurrent and semi-feminist "I don't need a man, but I want one" narrative –– one would expect this to be quite a significant event, but this is simply overlooked in the narrative, and the lover's existence is simply passed off nonchalantly as an unimportant and negligible piece of information.
This is a common issue in this text. When new information is presented, it is done so effortlessly as though the introduction is inconsequential and to have been expected. For example, Homer introduces himself to Nobody and soon states, for the first time, "This is not what I expected [you to be like]", to which Nobody replies, "You keep saying that", and the audience is just to accept that this makes sense and is in keeping with what we have witnessed thus far. It is not. Nobody later continues, "You're tearing me down. I'm always wrong, always less than expected." The language here implies that the two have known each other for a long period of time, which is not the case. This lack of logical progression and chronology is further intensified by Angeni’s performance of the poem that I shall title 'The Cave of the Cyclops'. Somehow, Nobody now remembers her entire origins and history in order to translate this into poetic verse? She also says to Homer, "I don't like asking for anything, much less help, and if you know me, then you know that." So…now Nobody has a clear sense of her personality and identity? How?! With no recognition from Nobody of her sudden ability to remember her entire life, it is easy to feel cheated watching this performance — if we were ever permitted time to invest in it to begin with.
More on this poem. There are several of them, and I shall start by saying that the poems themselves are actually very well written, with the strength of the poetry getting greater and greater as the play goes on. In fact, ‘The Cave of the Cyclops’ provides readers with excellent and distinct imagery and wonderful articulacy and expression. However, in the context of this performance, not only are they ill-introduced, as mentioned above, but they are incredibly stylistically inconsistent with the rest of the text. Soon, the poems come to render the performance rather bipartite: a poem and then a duologue, then a poem, etc. They are then further dampened by the accompanying physical movement being so repetitive, and limited only to the arms and upper body. Angeni’s delivery of the spoken word-esque verses is, overall, tonally repetitious, and she also needs to focus better on her breathing; she is incredibly breathy.
Overall, Angeni's delivery is simply…terrible, unfortunately. She gives no thought to pacing, intonation or intention, and this is evident right from the beginning, where lines are simply reeled off, all with the exact same tone. When Nobody is first, what I shall call, for lack of a better word, abducted, Angeni's monotonal, uninvigorated and unconvincing delivery is further exposed, especially in her delivery of lines such as: "Can you hear that? Hello?", "What the fuck? Who are you?”, “Erm, no, you're not [my father]. You can't be", and "Get out of my head. You're horrible." For the most part, however, I must admit that characters are well defined, but only through voice and specific gestural/physical movement, not through any profound characterisation or transformativity. There needs a better distinction between characters at the moment she is to transform from one to another.
All elements considered, this performance is very weak and has yet to find its identity and a clear, coherent voice. Its material demands far too much ignorance from its audience in regard to its lack of vigour and intelligible progression. And this is without considering all of the errors and inconsistencies that compromise the credibility of the text –– for example, Angeni’s constant mispronunciation of ‘Aeaea’, or how Poseidon curses Nobody to endure troubles on her journey home by herself, alone, yet she journeys home together with Homer, from whom she is “inseparable”, and an ever-present, spying Calypso.
I would recommend limiting the chaos present throughout so that it increases over the performance's duration, especially so that Poseidon's curse and stipulations, which are fundamental to the plot, are communicated well and clearly and not lost amongst nonsensical utterances of 'pumpkin pie' and fat-shaming. This would also give the audience appropriate time to settle into the narrative.
I will end on a positive note, however. Supplementary technical elements in this performance –– music, sound and lighting ––– were very well designed. Compositions were adequately dramatic, and sound, for the most part, was clear and appropriately utilised, particularly efficacious when considering the effects applied to the voiceovers of the more eerie and particularised characters, such as the sirens. Lighting was well managed, if a little too harsh in some scenes; costume was a good, if rather basic, decision; and the prop of the bow and arrow was most impressive and eye-catching. Unfortunately, though, these elements could not together salvage my critical or personal engagement.