A one-man Odyssey

Charlie Bethel in <b><i>The Odyssey</i></b>

Charlie Bethel in The Odyssey

[Editor's note: Due to illness, the remaining performances have been canceled.]

Charlie Bethel hasn't spent 10 years adrift on the "wine-dark sea," but the performer has been absent from local stages for a number of years while plying his trade across the nation. He makes a strong return to the Twin Cities theater scene with Walking Shadow Theatre Company's The Odyssey, in which the adventures of Odysseus come to life through Bethel's powerful solo performance.

Bethel is no stranger to retooling the classics for solo performances. He worked with Walking Shadow in 2007 on an adaptation of Beowulf, and has also created versions of Gilgamesh, Seven Poor Travellers, and Tom Thumb.

These shows differ from many modern one-person shows, which can often be exercises in navel-gazing. For Bethel, these singular stories are about bringing an epic to life, complete with a varied cast. There are heroes, villains, gods, and nymphs, in addition to the story's main character.

Bethel tackles all of these roles on Open Eye Figure Theatre's stage. His most important, however, is that of storyteller. As he guides us through Odysseus's journey, there are asides to explain particularly Greek moments and touches to make anyone who has studied the classics momentarily thrilled.

When Odysseus and his crew are imprisoned by the Cyclops and the one-eyed creature asks for his name, our hero replies that his name is "Cunning," which the creature hears as "Nobody." It turns out the names are homonyms. That's right. It's a 3,000-year-old pun, one that is explained and then built into the storytelling.

In a later scene, Odysseus goes to Hades to have a chat with some spirits, including poor Achilles, he of the tragically vulnerable heel. As the spirit walks away, Bethel limps — earning some laughs from the house. "I'm glad you got that," he says.

Still, the show is about more than making liberal arts majors feel better about studying the classics. While Homer's tale is packed with adventure, there is plenty of pathos as well. Odysseus's longing to get home — even through lengthy digressions in the homes of gods and such — is strong throughout.

Bethel also takes plenty of time to showcase what's going on at the homefront in Ithaca, where Odysseus's wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, have been besieged by a veritable army of rude suitors. In the show's second half, with Odysseus making his final few island hops on the way home, there is a growing sense of desperation from both parts of the family. It makes the eventual return and bloody revenge all the more alive.

Along with making sly allusions and explaining ancient puns, Bethel hustles to bring the varied locales and pieces of action to the stage, whether it be members of Odysseus's crew turning into pigs or just being eaten by the monsters they come across (it happens a lot) or the various actions of the ever-watchful (and vengeful, in the case of Poseidon) Greek gods. The staging helps: There are artifacts and representations of the epic journey littering the playing area, from an ax (an important tool in the battle against the suitors) to a Grecian-style helm to stacks of unbound, aged paper that represent the text of this, and other, epics from the era.

The impressive performance is also aided by the sound design (by Bethel and Michael Carleton) and lighting (by Barry Browning), which work in close concert with the performer to craft a full and vibrant experience.

All of that aside, this is Bethel the performer's showcase. He is quick to engage the audience and keeps them in his playful hands from beginning to end. There is humor, heartbreak, terror, and excitement — everything you would want from an epic, no matter how many actors it takes to pull off.