Backstage

A 'Current Nobody' With a Mythic Past

Melissa James Gibson, the Obie-winning playwright of
Melissa James Gibson, the Obie-winning playwright of "Current Nobody," retells Homer's epic with a modern-day heroine. (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Why not take "The Odyssey" and turn it into a contemporary saga in which Odysseus stays home and his wife goes a-wandering? Obie-winning playwright Melissa James Gibson ("[sic]," "Suitcase," "Brooklyn Bridge") did just that, creating "Current Nobody," which gets a world premiere run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Oct. 29-Nov. 25.

Gibson explains that Odysseus's mythic adventure during his much-delayed return from the Trojan War (to wife Penelope and son Telemachus) is "just huge, but at the same time it has this wonderful intimacy about it." Odysseus, she says, "was at war for 10 years, but he spent a second 10 years trying to get home. In the course of that 20 years, he lost who he was. . . . We are all defined both by what we do [and] also by who we love, and when we become separated from those anchors, one's sense of self is affected." Hence the title, "Current Nobody."

In her play, the modern Odysseus (called Od) stays home, spinning yarn and pining for absent wife Pen, who has gone off to be a war photographer, leaving him and baby daughter Tel.

Gibson seems to argue the case both ways when asked about her portrait of an absentee, career-focused mother. Pen's lost sense of self is "not because she's a woman"; after all, Odysseus went through the same thing, the playwright maintains. Yet she concedes that "in terms of the absence from the family, society puts a different pressure on women."

Gibson, who has two young kids with her lighting-designer husband, works full time as a high school counselor in Brooklyn and writes plays, observes that "it's incredibly hard to feel that you're meeting your children's needs at the same time you're meeting your own."

Occasional quotes from Richmond Lattimore's classic translation of "The Odyssey," much beloved by Gibson, pop up in "Current Nobody." Her own punctuation-free dialogue also looks like verse on the page, but she says her choice to go sans commas and full stops is not "anything highfalutin"; it's intended to give the cast and director (Daniel Aukin, former artistic director of Soho Rep in New York and a frequent Gibson collaborator) a freer interpretive rein.

"Punctuation doesn't have a place in my plays," Gibson says, "because for me that's not how most people express themselves." Period.

Caligula at the Crossroads

"Acting's so strange," observes Alexander Strain, currently playing the title role in Washington Shakespeare Company's "Caligula," at Arlington's Clark Street Playhouse through Nov. 11. "You think you're at a certain level, and then a project can come along that just exposes how much more there is to explore."

Strain is currently plumbing the depths of the murderous Roman emperor in French existentialist Albert Camus' 1944 play. Working with Artistic Director Christopher Henley and a recent translation by Brit David Greig, the actor feels they have found a trigger for Caligula's descent into bloody-mindedness -- the death of his sister (and probable lover) Drusilla.

"He reigned for four years and he was an extremely popular emperor, and all of a sudden, there was this shift," Strain says. "We felt that it couldn't just be some sort of minor thing. The death of his sister really had to be something devastating." This, he says, brings Caligula to the revelation that "we die and we are unhappy."

Caligula takes this and runs with it in the wrong direction, having his closest associates and their families brutalized or killed on a whim -- a function of his own "feelings of being deceived and witnessing human hypocrisy" and the meaninglessness of life, Henley says.

"The character kind of reminds me of some people I knew in college, who just became so incapacitated by ideas to the point where they couldn't deal with the world and kind of flamed out," he continues. Henley says he told Strain, "I want you to be like that kind of college student. . . . The difference is that you run the place."


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