A long silence from Theater of the First Amendment and its two most prominent artists will be broken tomorrow through Sunday with the premiere of "The Odyssey of Telemaca," a new musical from Mary Hall Surface and David Maddox.
The professional group in residence at George Mason University in Fairfax has performed little during the past two seasons. During that time, Surface and Maddox, who had premieres of new works in each of the three previous seasons, maintained an uncharacteristically low profile.
Eager fans will get the chance to see what they have been up to when "Odyssey" opens tomorrow night. Billed as "the largest, most ambitious production Theater of the First Amendment has undertaken" and inspired by Homer's "The Odyssey," the play follows a Mexican girl who learns to believe in herself during a quest to find her long-missing father and save her village from an evil land baron. Infused with the lively music of the region, the story is set in the Sonora desert of northern Mexico in the late 19th century.
"It's a fairy tale about growing up and leaving the family and finding your way without them," Maddox explained, taking a break from rehearsal, where he played piano and directed the music while his partner directed the cast. Surface, sitting nearby, added, "We like big stories. We enjoy working on a mythic level, but looking at personal growth and the choices people make, and how they play out on a personal level."
As in their previous three shows, the critically acclaimed "Sing Down the Moon," "Perseus Bayou" and "Mississippi Pinocchio," Surface and Maddox worked together on all aspects of the project. But as the primary composer for "Odyssey," Maddox immersed himself in the region's music before writing more than two dozen songs in the lilting waltz rhythm associated with northern Mexico. There are mariachi-style trumpet flourishes, and the seven-piece band includes an accordion.
Surface and Maddox collaborated on song lyrics, with Surface primarily responsible for the story and dialogue. She became familiar with regional traditions through her association with the Childsplay theater group in Tempe, Ariz., which commissioned this work.
"We start with the story," Maddox said. "It's always about the story," Surface interjected.
"We write all the words first," Maddox continued. "Even before a note is written, the entire script is created in words. The ones we put in capital letters may end up as songs. Then we start the music, going back and forth. Sometimes the text turns into a song. Or if we find the song says everything we need for a particular thought or section, then we may be able to cut some of the text."
This integration of two imaginations, with its interweaving of music and story, creates a smoothly flowing pastiche of colorful cultural touchstones, heroic action and emotion. It is both kid-friendly and meaningful for adults.
"We wanted a girl at the center of the story, because there are few stronger bonds than that between a father and a daughter," Surface replied when asked about the scarcity of young females in heroic roles in epic tales, whether in Greek mythology or in old Mexico. "It's a wonderfully strong metaphor, as the daughter becomes part of her father's journey."
After two years of work, this production of "The Odyssey of Telemaca" will run only for three days. Theater of the First Amendment is gambling that it makes economic sense to move from the 140-seat TheaterSpace in the university's Center for the Arts to the 2,000-seat Concert Hall, where many more people can see the show in a much shorter time frame. The move also allows scenic design on a grander scale than usual.
With the vast Concert Hall bustling with lighting, set and sound designers and technicians, and costumers busily sewing in nearby cubicles, Maddox looked around as he prepared to gather the cast and artistic crew for a few more hours of rehearsal.
"We're incomprehensively lucky to have all this, to have this relationship with the Theater [of the First Amendment]," he said. "It's the kind of relationship most theater people can only dream of, to be invited to dream in this scale."
"The Odyssey of Telemaca" is at the George Mason University Center for the Arts Concert Hall at Braddock Road and Route 123. Showtimes are 7 p.m. tomorrow, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 for adults, half-price for children 12 and younger. For tickets, call 703-218-6500 or visit www.tickets.com. For more information, visit www.gmu.edu/cfa.