David D'Agostini in Homer's Odyssey
(© Jonathan Slaff)
David D'Agostini in Homer's Odyssey
(© Jonathan Slaff)
Is there an English major worth his or her salt who hasn't soaked up Homer's Odyssey? The complex tale still has a lot going for it nearly 3,000 years after its debut -- but one might not realize that watching the Handcart Ensemble's production of Homer's Odyssey, now at 45 Bleecker Street. The company has devised a truncated version of the classic Greek work -- as retold by Simon Armitage for a 2004 BBC radio program -- that runs close to three hours, but its length isn't why the play feels much longer!

The earliest tellings of Odyssey were very likely sung, which strongly states that the poetic language was musical by its very nature. But there isn't much figurative music in the Handcart's acting as they unfold the adventures and misadventures that the larger-than-life hero Odysseus (David D'Agostini) embarks upon as he takes ten years to travel home from fighting the Trojan War.

During that decade-long stretch, he's held captive by Calypso, dallies with Nausicaa, is almost vanquished by the one-eyed Cyclops, is held at siren Circe's mercy, has to pass through briny straits that monsters Scylla and Charybdis patrol, sleeps through his men's slaughtering Helios' sacred cattle, and ultimately loses all his companions before reaching his hometown of Ithaca, where 20-year-old son Telemachus (Joel Rainwater) longs for the dad he's never known and faithful wife Penelope (Elizabeth Ruelas) has been keeping a gang of rowdy suitors at bay.

The 11 Handcart actors recount -- in Armitage's sometimes felicitous, sometimes clunky verbiage -- most of these signature incidents, skipping Homer's many colorful digressions, but also discarding the treacherous Scylla and Charybdis. The play features Cyclops, but does so awkwardly. At first, the one-eyed threat is presented as a shadow figure behind an upstage sheet. Then he appears as a puppet -- presumably a cast member on stilts -- with a scary face and a hunchback. (This is only one of two puppets eventually trotted out; the other being one of Helios' docile bulls.)

Only occasionally does Armitage come up with intriguing stage business, such as actors making bellows of themselves when Poseidon's winds are blowing Odysseus into possible disaster, but it's not enough to turn this piece into a Homer run.