For the We Players, all the world is truly a stage -- or at least the Bay Area is. The site-specific theater company brings drama to dramatic public spaces: Macbeth at Fort Point, Hamlet on Alcatraz, The Odyssey on a historic schooner as it sailed the San Francisco Bay. For its latest project, the company is exploring more chapters of Homer's epic, this time on Angel Island.
The all-day adventure is an odyssey in its own right. You take a ferry that departs Pier 41 at 9:40 a.m., and you don't return until after 5 p.m. You walk three to four miles on paved and unpaved paths, up and down hills, around almost the entire island, all with no official lunch break. Like true adventurers, I suppose, you must eat while you journey; indeed, by comparison to the We Players' past two shows, The Odyssey on Angel Island has the highest travel time-to-theater ratio.
Taxing as the experience is, especially for theatergoers accustomed to exercising their sitting muscles, it is not without rewards, chief among which is the scenery itself. There's the bay, with its pools of blues and greens unobstructed by hills (or condos). There are Pride of Madeira in full bloom and the painterly, peeling bark of eucalyptus trees. And of course, there are views of San Francisco, Marin, the East Bay, and the bridges from unfamiliar, even disorienting angles.
Director and company founder Ava Roy has a knack for creating startling images that take advantage of and at times enhance these vistas. Often you hear a scene before you see it, as a few members of the nine-person band, under the musical direction of Charlie Gurke, evoke the sounds of a haunted house or play a miniature jazz concert from around the upcoming corner.
What you discover is often women, in long, flowing costumes in striking poses that seem at once preposterous and sublime amidst their surroundings. (The 12 ensemble members play more than 40 roles.) One particularly effective scene repurposes a battery (the island has a substantial history with the military) as a site for religious sacrifice, the pit for the weapon becoming the hole in which the sacrificial victim dies. With eerie chanting and strings, ritualistic movements, simple but evocative costumes, and potions that magically change color, you feel as though you are participating in a sacred event on hallowed ground.
Roy's forays into broad physical comedy also succeed, thanks largely to the clowning talents of ensemble members Nathaniel Justiniano and Ross Travis. It's the long, serious sections that bog this production down. Roy focuses on the parts of The Odyssey in which Telemachus (a solemn and charismatic James Udom) searches for his father Odysseus, and there are a lot of passages where characters describe the dangers that lie ahead.
This type of theater requires a special state of mind in an audience member. To achieve it, you have to feel deeply for the character and also feel as though he or she is speaking directly to you. But much about this production conspires against that. It's hard to get a good view of performers amidst the crowd. The performers, in turn, must shout their lines and make their actions demonstrative, which doesn't allow for much subtlety. And the constant going into and out of the conceit of theater, what with all the traveling, thwarts the imagining and pretending that is at the heart of the medium.
Each of Roy's past three productions has suffered from this problem. How do you explore a public space through theater and give audiences the kind of moving, rewarding theatrical experiences they're accustomed to having inside and in the dark? Roy's next project, the comedy Twelfth Night, might be more suited to the company's strengths. In the meantime, The Odyssey on Angel Island offers a few very lovely scenes amidst much to merely trudge through.
The Odyssey on Angel Island continues through July 1 at Angel Island State Park. Admission is $40-$75.