In February, I naïvely wrote that location-based theater — performed in unconventional and outdoor spaces — was a production style I’d be happy to see more of in the future. Now, more six months into a worldwide pandemic, that wish comes true albeit in the most roundabout, unforeseeable way possible.
After months of anticipation, Austin theater takes a significant, post-COVID step away from exclusively virtual productions with Vortex Repertory Company’s “Odyssey.” A play designed to be experienced in its entirety without setting foot outside your vehicle, this timely adaptation aims to be many different things at once. And a traditional, scripted stage show is not one of them.
At its core, “Odyssey” is an original musical and dance revue, a showcase of the Vortex Repertory Company’s talented theater artists. Penned, directed, composed, and choreographed by over 40 cast and crew members, “Odyssey” uses Homer’s epic poem as a loose framework to cast as wide a narrative net as possible. While the show’s 11 segments/installations range in scope from grounded to absurd, and from the politically charged to the delightfully abstract, they are all nonetheless unified by a zeal that celebrates this novel, socially distanced medium of performance.
And what a medium it is.
From the second you drive your portable reserved seating, aka your car, into the Vortex parking lot on Manor Road, it’s clear you’re not in for the typical theater-going experience. A helpful, mask-clad usher hands you a program, which doubles as a roadmap of the installation, and so ends the last moment of outside human interaction before entering the world of “Odyssey.”
The show’s audio — including dialogue, music, and scene transitions — is transmitted via the smartphone app, RAVE. Originally intended for users to stream online videos with friends in real-time (similar to Netflix’s party feature), the app also works perfectly for the performance’s purposes. Before an individual segment begins, the show’s traffic manager sends each vehicle a RAVE link via text, which opens the specific vignette’s audio and subtitles. Once everyone’s connected the performance begins, with each performer lip-synching to their pre-recorded audio. (The fact that they’re also wearing masks adds to the show’s timeliness).
Fittingly enough, the first scene is Homer’s invocation. Delivered by the Vortex’s delightful box office manager Alex Cogburn, alongside several muses, it sets the tone for what’s to come — a primarily lighthearted and self-aware, yet nonetheless genuine production with many topical jokes and references scattered throughout.
Next, spectators drive toward the Vortex’s north parking lot where Athena awaits, played by actor Allegra Jade Fox with a regal command (and much to the bewildered amusement of passersby who happen to be traveling on Manor Road). From here on, Athena “accompanies” audiences on their journey, appearing on video after each subsequent performance to offer both scene-connecting context and physical direction.
Slowly making our way toward Chestnut Avenue but still in the Vortex parklng lot, we encounter Poseidon and the sea monsters. Together, the episode’s eye-catching backdrops and chaotic sound and lighting design create a foreboding atmosphere.
Venturing now into the Underworld (the sparsely lit drive-through of a nearby former dry cleaners), audiences meet a disappointed yet reflective Hades, played by the always charming Michael Galvan. The intentionally placed fauna illuminated by an otherworldly purple floodlight mark just how carefully designed each installation’s visuals are.
Later, along East 22nd Street, we find the island of the enchantress Circe (Hayley Armstrong). Even though technical difficulties here force our group to experience this piece via the performers’ nearby loudspeaker, Armstrong’s striking characterization and presence — along with Pam Flecher Friday’s breathtaking costume design, completed by a crown of berries and seashells — nonetheless prove this vignette to be one the production’s high points.
Beckoned by a jaunty earworm from the nearby Island of Calypso, we find ourselves next in the presence of the Cyclops, reimagined here as a towering cyborg. Composer Chad Salvata’s upbeat cyberpunk, techno composition fits like a glove with Connor Hopkins and Melissa Vogt’s fantastically constructed cyclops costume (featuring a giant, fully-functional mechanical arm), lending an incredible spectacle to writer Krysta Gonzales’s lyrics. Tied together by Kami Cooper’s poised performance and Will Douglas’s colorful direction, this Cyclops vignette presents the best example of the sort of unfettered creativity that has made “Odyessy” so engaging thus far.
Closing out the evening is a wonderfully atmospheric group movement piece from the sirens, delivered in the creepy setting of the abandoned Ace Motel parking lot. It’s followed by a powerful and politically charged solo dance number by Faith Anderson in the role of Telemachus. Finally, we venture back to the Vortex compound, where we find the always-wonderful Barbara Mojica portraying a musing Penelope.
At nearly an hour and a half in length, Vortex’s “Odyssey” is a journey in and of itself. While the sheer amount of content that Vortex’s creative team has crammed into this experience is nothing if not impressive (and occasionally overwhelming), the genuine enthusiasm brought to the table by all parties involved made gave the show an infectious energy. What’s more, while it’s hard to imagine the level of commitment that goes into a production of this scale (to quote my partner, “this must have been a logistical nightmare to put on”), from a technical standpoint, this ambitious concept runs smooth despite its many moving parts.
Vortex Repertory Company is essentially building the bike it’s riding on, and for that, the troupe deserves credit. While “Odyssey” is not exactly a cohesive masterpiece, the overall show never becomes disjointed. It’s a sort of unconventional love letter to the craft of theater — one that feels so urgently needed given the art form’s uncertain future.
If I were to go back to February of 2020, knowing what I do now, I’d still write about my desire for more location-specific outdoor performances. It’s a desire I still hold. And now that I’ve seen what such a creative exploration looks like fully realized, I have to say it’s pretty damn entertaining.
“Odyssey” continues through Oct. 10, vortexrep.org