The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Programs in Theater and Music Theater at Princeton University will present The Odyssey, a musical participatory production reimagining Homer’s classic epic poem of a journey home originally created by The Public Theater’s PublicWorks program, on March 8 and 9 at 8:00 p.m. and March 10 at 3:00 p.m. at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place. The production is being directed by Princeton senior Victoria Davidjohn with design by senior Annabel Barry and featuring seniors Carly Maitlin, Bria McKenzie, and Justin Ramos. Joining a large cast of Princeton students, participating community partners include the Trenton Children’s Chorus, Trenton Circus Squad, HomeFront, Princeton Arts Council, McCarter Theatre Center’s Educational Program, and Princeton University student performing groups HighSteppers and Raqs: Princeton Belly Dance Company.
The Odyssey tells the story of the warrior Odysseus and his quest to return to his homeland following the Trojan War. His adventure-filled, ten-year journey takes him through the Ionian Islands and the Peloponnese and as far away as Egypt and North Africa and the western Mediterranean, as the displeased sea-god Poseidon prevents him from reaching his home. He encounters the single-eyed giant Cyclops, the Sirens of the sea, the whirlpool Charybdis, and the multi-headed monster Scylla. The Odyssey is among the oldest written works of Western literature, the model for the heroic quest, and has had an enormous influence with numerous adaptations of the story throughout history.
This adaptation of The Odyssey was conceived by Lear deBessonet with book, music and lyrics by Todd Almond and commissioned by The Public Theater in New York City for its PublicWorks program. PublicWorks is a major initiative that seeks to engage the people of New York by making them creators and not just spectators through partner organizations in all five boroughs, encouraging the community to join in creating theater “that is not only for the people, but by and of the people.”
Davidjohn interned the past two summers at The Public Theater in the PublicWorks department. “I was fulfilled by working on this initiative,” Davidjohn said. “There was an overwhelming sense of community among the 200 or so participants, the process was inclusive, and the rehearsal room was filled with joy. I knew I wanted to bring this amazing radical hospitality to my senior thesis.”
Davidjohn arrived at Princeton with a love of theater, but found few acting opportunities in campus productions as a woman of color. “I called my mom,” said Davidjohn, “and she said ‘fix it. Put on a show that welcomes people who look like you.’ I stumbled blindly into directing out of necessity, then fell in love with it.” Davidjohn is the recipient of the Dale Fellowship, which “enables an outstanding Princeton senior to devote the year following graduation to an independent project of extraordinary merit.” Davidjohn, who was raised in Puerto Rico, is majoring in English and pursuing certificates in theater and music theater. Her English Department thesis is a journal documenting the process of mounting this ambitious production and an in-depth analysis of the script informing her interpretation. She notes that courses with Professor of Theater Stacy Wolf have influenced her work, along with Wolf’s books on feminism in musical theater, including Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical. Davidjohn has also studied advanced theatrical design and was the lighting designer for last year’s Lewis Center premiere production of Trailing Rhiannon. She has performed in other Lewis Center productions including the musical Once and directed In the Heights and Evita for Princeton University Players and the Jonathan Larson musical Tick, Tick…Boom! for Princeton Summer Theater.
Davidjohn and Barry connected in the spring 2018 Princeton course “Theater Making Studio” taught by Broadway director John Doyle in which theater juniors explore theories and practices in contemporary theater making. “I knew I wanted to design the set for a production as my senior thesis,” said Barry, “but I was also interested in a production that could incorporate my interest in puppetry and using recycled and found objects and which could involve making theater with children.” Joining Davidjohn on a PublicWorks type of project seemed to match these interests and the two proposed The Odyssey as a joint endeavor.
Barry’s set design includes 160 two-foot-square mosaic tiles made with recycled caps and lids and other objects over bright, colorful backgrounds. She collaborated with the University’s Office of Sustainability in collecting recycled materials. She felt mosaics conveyed the theme of the production with various stories and worlds coming together and referenced the classical nature of the story. A giant wooden loom transforms into different scenic elements – a boat, a shipwreck, as a screen for shadow puppets – and references the various threads that are woven to tell the story. The handmade mosaics provided an opportunity for community involvement beyond performing. Barry and members of The Odyssey project team have been working over the past several months with various groups through workshops to create the mosaic tiles including children from the Arts Council of Princeton’s afterschool program with the nonprofit social services organization HomeFront, adults from HomeFront’s art therapy program, and students, faculty and staff at Princeton. Barry also worked with recent Princeton theater alumnus Alex Daniels, an intern at McCarter Theatre, to do mosaic tiles with children in McCarter’s program and to provide theater workshops.
Barry is also creating large pageant-type puppets for the production to portray the whirlpool, Cyclops, and the six-headed sea monster, all operated by multiple members of the cast. The puppets are also made of recycled materials. Her idea of introducing puppets into the production stems from her studies of the use of puppets in historical and current activist and political theater, parades, and demonstrations.
Barry is co-recipient of this year’s Pyne Prize, one of Princeton’s highest academic awards to seniors. She is majoring in English and pursuing certificates in humanistic studies and European cultural studies, as well as in theater. Besides the theater making course with Doyle, Barry notes the influence of two years in advanced theatrical design courses, a Princeton Atelier course last spring with theater/puppet artist Basil Twist and a current Atelier course with Wakka Wakka, a visual theater company that extensively uses puppets. She designed the set for the Lewis Center’s production of the musical Picnic at Hanging Rock and served as assistant designer for its production of Into the Woods. Last spring, she designed the set for the original play Trash Mermaids, also incorporating recycled materials in partnership with the Office of Sustainability. Barry also serves as co-editor of the student-published Nassau Literary Review.
The community groups that make cameo appearances in the production are the Trenton Children’s Chorus, embodying the character of the goddess and Odysseus’ protector Athena. The Trenton Circus Squad characterizes the fun-loving and hospitable Phaeacians with their joyful movement and juggling. Princeton student performing group, the HighSteppers represent the palace guard, and Raqs: Princeton Belly Dance Company embody water and the mythical Sirens.
Joining Maitlin, McKenzie, and Ramos, the large cast includes 28 other graduate and undergraduate students including seniors AJ Sermarini, Sid Anand, Linda Luo, Miranda Christ, and Nnenna Ibe; juniors Jackson Artis, Kateryn McReynolds, Carl Sun, Ben Kimmel, Billie Runions, Sylvie Thode, Rasheeda Saka and Calvin Rusley; sophomores Miranda Allegar, Haydon John, Minjae Kim, Delaney McMahon, Lydia Gompper, Akash Kushwaha, and Tyler Ashman; first-year students BT Hayes, Lexi Buzzini, Leila Abou-Jaoude, Juan Jose Lopez Haddad, and Ed Horan; Princeton graduate students Sai Ishetiar and Ileana Cruz-Marden; and Princeton Theological Seminary graduate student Gail Tierney.
In addition to Barry, students are leading the design and production of The Odyssey. Junior Jenny Kim is lighting designer. Senior Amber Lin serves as music director, and sophomore Asher Muldoon composed additional orchestrations. The choreography team is composed of seniors Davidjohn, Jessica Bailey, Sunny Qin, and Astrid Garay; junior Diana Sandoval Simán; sophomore Runako Campbell, and first-year students Jacqueline Xu and Melanie McCloy. Junior Jianing Zhao provided costume concept design in collaboration with the Lewis Center’s Costume Shop. Junior Hannah Semmelhack serves as stage manager. Sophomore Miranda Allegar serves as the student campus community coordinator and Matthew Lupino serves as the professional stage manager working with the Trenton groups. Sophomore Rosie Vasen is assistant director, first-year student Reed Leventis is assistant lighting designer, senior Amber Lin is assistant music director, and the assistant stage managers are senior Changhuo Liu, junior Genna Garlock, and sophomore Eliana Cohen-Orth. Valentine Monfeuga is the professional sound designer for the production, and Chelsea Easter serves as the professional wardrobe supervisor on the show.
Faculty and guest artists serving as advisors to the project are Suzanne Agins and Jane Cox on production/directing, Lawrence Moten on set and puppet design, Tess James on lighting design, Sarita Fellows on costume design, Vince di Mura on music direction, and Erica Nagel on community engagement.
In addition to the Office of Sustainability, other University cosponsors include the Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship, the Office of Undergraduate Research, the Humanities Council, the Program in Humanistic Studies, the Department of Classics, the University Center for Human Values, and the English Department with additional support from the Office of Religious Life, Whitman College, and the Department of Comparative Literature. The project is also supported by the Migrations Initiative, a three-year initiative involving 22 core faculty members, multiple University departments and programs, and over 30 Princeton-area nonprofit organizations to investigate the theme of migration through research, conferences, course development and programming including lectures, exhibitions, film screenings, author talks, and performances. The two seniors and faculty leading The Odyssey note the production relates strongly to the initiative’s topics of refugees and forced migration.
Tickets for The Odyssey are $12 general public in advance of show dates, $10 for students, $12 for seniors, and $17 general public purchased the day of performances at the box office. Advance tickets are available through the McCarter box office online at mccarter.org or by calling 609-258-2787 and in-person at the Frist Campus Center Ticket Office or Roth Box Office at the Lewis Arts complex.
To learn more about this event, the Programs in Theater and Music Theater, and the more than 100 other performances, exhibitions, readings, screenings, concerts, and lectures presented by the Lewis Center, most of them free, visit arts.princeton.edu.