Greek mythology goes to Mexico in "The Odyssey of Telemaca," a kid-friendly musical that's being presented this weekend by George Mason University's Theater of the First Amendment.
Inspired by the "central domestic events" of "The Odyssey," creators Mary Hall Surface and David Maddox here transform Homer's epic into a story of a little girl lost.
Set in the Sonoran Desert in the late 19th century, "The Odyssey of Telemaca" is also wrapped in a fable. The play opens with a grown-up Telemaca (Jenna Sokolowski) telling her newborn the tale of Aesop's scorpion. The action then jumps back to Telemaca's childhood, where the scorpion is personified by Don Ricardo (Eric Lee Johnson), a villain whose attempt to usurp the land of local farmers forces Telemaca's father, Omero (Steve Tipton), to leave his family so that he can "stop the scorpion from stinging."
The spirited 7-year-old Telemaca (still played by Sokolowski), who has inherited her father's zest for battle, trusts his promise that, like a butterfly who's flown off, he'll soon return. But weeks turn into years, and as the family's land dries up and harvests become scarce, Telemaca's mother, Pureza (Janine Gulisano), considers marrying Don Ricardo so she and her daughter can survive. Though it becomes common belief that Omero is dead, Telemaca sets out through the desert to find him, despite dangers such as a "trickster" Coyote (Cesar A. Guadamuz) and La Llorona (Lynn Filusch), a spirit who haunts the night, searching for lost children.
"The Odyssey of Telemaca's" 20-odd songs are performed by a seven-piece band wearing ponchos and hats. Few of Surface and Maddox's compositions will stick in your head after you walk out the door -- think Disney at its blandest -- but the production keeps the volume reasonable and the cast's voices clear so that the numbers, even if they don't get your toes tapping, at least further the story.
What "The Odyssey of Telemaca" lacks musically, however, it makes up for with visual dazzle. The stage of George Mason's Center for the Arts is dominated by a sky that turns cobalt blue and lime green and red, punctuated by a full moon or fiery sun that hangs over floor-to-ceiling mountains. The costumes are flouncy, colorful and, in the case of the Coyote, inventive -- instead of decking Guadamuz in head-to-toe fuzz, designer Helen Qizhi Huang chose to give him a subtler hint of animal, with canine ears and fur on one arm and an opposing leg.
Puppets also embellish the story, though only a gentle shower of butterflies and the larger-than-life mask and hands of La Llorona appear in the show's first half. Act 2, however -- which is significantly livelier all around -- boasts vultures, a four-headed dog and breathtaking scorpions, which are rendered by prostrate actors zipping across the stage on roller boards.
Besides breaking down "The Odyssey" into a digestible adventure, "Telemaca" also encourages learning by slyly slipping Spanish phrases into its songs and dialogue, always giving enough context to make their meaning clear. Though the story is built on violence, the production's swordplay and scary moments are gentle enough for all ages, and there are plenty of humor and sight gags to keep smaller theatergoers entertained as well. Even the play's opening moral about evil gets a happy spin: "There will always be scorpions, but there will always, always be butterflies."
The Odyssey of Telemaca, by Mary Hall Surface and David Maddox. Directed by Surface. Musical direction, Maddox; set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Helen Qizhi Huang; lighting, Dan Covey; puppets, Marie Schneggenburger; choreography, Dan Joyce. Approximately two hours. Through June 6 at George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax. Call 703-218-6500 or visit www.tickets.com.