Crown of Shadows: the Wake of Odysseus

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Editorial Review

Review: 'Odyssey' variation eventually loses its way
By Peter Marks
Thursday, Apr. 19, 2012

What a piece of work is this Telemachus, the Hamlet-like brooder of playwright Jason Gray Platt's modern family tragedy, "Crown of Shadows: The Wake of Odysseus." Spoiled and sullen, he buries his head in books and sneers at the parade of craven suitors who waltz through his house, seeking to annex the bedroom of his regal mother, Penelope, and thereby assume control of their sun-baked island.

Portrayed with a proper degree of disaffection by Michael Morrow Hammack, this manchild vacillates between long periods of embittered inertia and spasms of frustrated rage - as vented in terrifying fashion on his sometime girlfriend, the comely Calliope (Julia Proctor). He has the instincts of both caveman and rational man, a dichotomy that raises in this world premiere at Round House Theatre the potentially unsettling question of which aspect of Telemachus's nature will win out.

For elusive reasons, the playwright strays from some of the piece's interesting possibilities and leads us instead to a pat, sensationalized conclusion, one that leaves you feeling that what director Blake Robison has staged in Bethesda is only a promising draft. Like his compelling central character, Platt seems to waver, in his case, over how to bind the looser stitches of his episodic tale, based on the domestic complications outlined in Homer's "Odyssey."

As a result, "Crown of Shadows: The Wake of Odysseus" - a title with an unfortunate "Release the Kraken!" sound to it - snaps and crackles tantalizingly, but never pops. The contemporary tension Platt imparts to the relationship between Telemachus and his clotheshorse of a mother, Deborah Hazlett's serenely elegant Penelope, is not sufficiently replicated in the play's other scenes, especially those pertaining to Penelope's myriad suitors, all played by Jefferson A. Russell.

The fates of Telemachus and Penelope - left behind and in the dark for 20 years, as the mythic Odysseus deals with the Trojan War and other far-off torments - seem a source of thematic richness for young playwrights being staged in Washington these days. In Woolly Mammoth Theatre's "Current Nobody," dramatist Melissa Jane Gibson turned the Homeric tables and looked at the social implications after a careerist mom (named Pen) disappears for 20 years.

In Studio Theatre's "Penelope," Enda Walsh transformed the vigil of the suitors into an existential act of Beckettian absurdism, as they wait in an empty swimming pool for a sign from Penelope - and the homicidal wrath of her returning-hero husband.

For these writers and for Platt, the war's home front is the riper battlefield: The return we know Odysseus eventually makes provides both a juicy epilogue and a resonant metaphor for a modern world keenly aware that hostilities play out both during combat, and after.

One hopes with his acute ear for the troubling static in a young man's life, Platt can locate the pertinent core of "Crown of Shadows," which charts Telemachus's psychological development from introverted adolescence to potential manly inheritor of his father's formidable mantle. We're on an unnamed island, on which the ruling class is growing impatient with the absence of its king, and the omnipresent paparazzi lurk outside Penelope's door, ready to pounce as she receives each applicant for her husband's throne.

"Crown of Shadows" is both faithful to and a riff on the original. Just as the writing of Gibson and Walsh becomes at times too conscious of their source, Platt's play sometimes reflects a pedantic reliance on literary details. Misha Kachman's set, with its epic feel and myriad allusions to classical ruins (and a bar sign advertising a beer brand called "Mythos") extends the production's tendency to over-literalness. A shallow pool at center stage seems for most of the show's two hours a staging encumbrance, and then it's used for transparent shock value in a final tableau.

Because many scenes must be enacted behind the pool, Kachman's impressive landscape can feel a little underpopulated. The confrontations charted in "Crown of Shadows" might convey more intensity in more intimate surroundings than on Round House's sprawling main stage. As it stands, Hazlett's poise is an asset, as her imperturbable tone advances the mystery of what she's up to. Hammack and Proctor have the tougher tasks of making seamless some rather inexplicably sharp shifts in motivation and personality. Russell, meanwhile, does fairly well by the quick-change mandates of his multiple parts.

The play is watchable and sometimes absorbing, as you seek to comprehend what life would be like for a young man faced with enormous responsibilities and no dependable model for how he is supposed to behave. With some patience and guidance, too, this playwright's voice will speak with more command.

Preview: Finding a big stage, with a little help
By Peter Marks
Sunday, Apr. 15, 2012

Like most young dramatists, Jason Gray Platt is a struggling one who holds down a day job to nourish his hopes of watching his work come alive at night. Having obtained a degree from Columbia University's graduate playwriting program in 2010, and still seeking an agent who'll do the fishing for him, the 27-year-old casts his scripts out into the world all by himself, waiting for some theater, somewhere, to bite.

It turned out in Platt's unusual case that a break materialized not from a theater at all, but from an organization in Washington that - without so much as its own office - would help him hone and, ultimately, find a home for a play. As a result, Platt is able to write for himself the happiest of happy endings.

Or rather, beginnings: Just this past week at Round House Theatre, preview performances started for Platt's "Crown of Shadows,"by far the highest-visibility platform that a work of his has received. (The piece, a modern riff on "The Odyssey" and staged by Round House's artistic director, Blake Robison, has its official opening on Monday.)

The event is a milestone not only for Platt, but also for the Inkwell, a 5-year-old D.C. nonprofit that is trying to shore up some of the gaping holes in the pipeline for new American drama. Plucking Platt's play from the vast trove of submissions it receives from across the country, the Inkwell provided "Crown of Shadows" a workshop with a professional director and actors, and made the pivotal referral that led to its Round House world premiere. To Platt's immense pleasure, the Inkwell also put him up in a hotel here while he worked with the showcase team - a perk that made concrete for him his advancement as a writer.

"This is by far the biggest show I've ever had," says Platt, who works in the front office of the Wooster Group, the New York-based performance ensemble. "It's been overwhelming. It was definitely the first time anyone who didn't first know my name called me to say they wanted to do my work."

The premiere is a significant first for the Inkwell, too: It's the first play to garner a full production by an established troupe after going through the organization's customized multi-level development process. (Last year, a start-up company in Montgomery County, Doorway Arts Ensemble, staged the Inkwell-nurtured "Tether" by Julie Taiwo Oni.)

Lee Liebeskind, a Washington actor who serves as Inkwell's producing director, says Round House's embrace of Platt's play demonstrates that Inkwell's catalyzing mission can work. Too many new plays become ensnared in an endless cycle of tryouts, workshop productions and informal readings, without ever reaching a paying audience. The Inkwell, it seems, is in the vanguard of a new theater movement attempting to loosen the logjam and help playwrights figure out how to enter the mainstream.

Many theaters, especially in Washington, are developing their own methods of locating distinctive new plays. Arena Stage has gone so far as to put playwrights on its payroll for three-year stints; Shakespeare Theatre Company commissions prominent writers, such as David Ives or Robert Pinsky, to adapt classical pieces; Signature Theatre, with grants from New York financier Ted Shen, has been churning out new musicals over the past several years. Woolly Mammoth Theatre has perhaps the longest record of showcasing original plays here, and now, smaller D.C. companies such as Taffety Punk and Forum Theatre are building programs to foster new works, too.

But without significant private-donor or foundation support, in-house play development can remain an item on a wish list for many troupes.

"Round House does not have a literary department, and I can only read so many plays a year," says Robison,who is leaving the Bethesda company after this season to run Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park. "I rely on the endorsement of my colleagues to find scripts."

The linchpin colleague in this instance was Jessica Burgess, the Inkwell's artistic director, who had worked as an assistant director for Robison and is a member of his advisory, idea-generating artistic roundtable.

"When I read that play, I thought that this was the perfect fit for Blake," Burgess says, adding that she lobbied him for a year over "Crown of Shadows." Robison not only read the play and liked it, but also felt a comfort level, knowing that Burgess's group was an intellectual backstop.

"I don't have the money to do half a dozen workshops," Robison says, "so if the Inkwell can do that for us, that's great. I certainly hope that this is the beginning of an ongoing relationship for Round House."

With a $2,500 grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Burgess started the Inkwell, thinking about how "to connect new plays to people who want to produce them."

She used some of the money to organize a gathering of like-minded theater folk, and over pizza, she said: "Here's what I want to do. Are you guys with me?"

Out of that brainstorming session evolved the Inkwell team, whose nexus is Burgess and Liebeskind, along with Executive Director Anne M. McCaw and Managing Director Lindsay Haynes Lowder. On the skimpiest of budgets - the organization runs on less than $80,000 a year, Liebeskind says, and most of that comes from private gifts - the group developed its system for finding and evaluating new plays. The organization's leaders are offered a nominal stipend.

"We have an open call for submissions, annually or every 18 months," Burgess explains. The search for unproduced plays is a national one, and the dozens of volunteers who read and assess the submissions come from across the country, too. "Anyone who wants to read with the Inkwell can," Burgess says, adding that the group has created a standardized numerical evaluation system covering six categories, including the play's structure, characters, and language and dialogue. (The orientation session for new play-readers occurs in an hour-long conference call.)

This system is used to winnow down the candidates for additional consideration and eventually, for a deserving handful, full week-long workshop productions. The Inkwell finds a theater or a rehearsal space, hires a production team and invites the writer to Washington to participate. In the current cycle, 330 plays were submitted.

What Burgess and the others look for is not necessarily the next "August: Osage County," but a voice of promise. "We ask, 'What does the writer have the potential to write 10 years from now?' " she says. "Plays that push the boundaries."

One of the plays that did that for the Inkwell was Platt's. "It's very him," Burgess says of "Crown of Shadows," which tells the story of "The Odyssey" from the point of view of Odysseus's son, Telemachus. "It's super-smart and sexy and violent and uses language in an original way. I think it's one of the most gripping plays I've read."

Of course, many of the pieces the Inkwell works on do not get struck by institutional lightning. But another play partly developed via the Inkwell, Mia Chung's "You for Me for You," has its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth next season. And for the moment, the Inkwell can experience the vicarious thrill of Platt's Round House coup.

The playwright himself says he's amazed at how completely Burgess and her organization have taken to his work. "I think," he said, "she might have a better understanding of the piece than I do."