Odyssey lands 'Ulysses' on Bethlehem Greenway
For its next production, Touchstone Theatre is again takin' it to the streets.
While the Lehigh Valley theater troupe won't be stopping traffic on the streets of Bethlehem's South Side, it may turn pedestrians' heads on the South Bethlehem Greenway.
Touchstone Theatre is inaugurating the Bethlehem Greenway Amphitheater for the world premiere of its latest outdoor extravaganza, "Ulysses Dreams: an exploration of origin and destiny," noon, 4 p.m. April 13, 14, 20 and 21.
The one-act, one-hour and 20-minute show is based on Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey," with original music and text by Jp Jordan and Christopher Shorr and choreography by Bill George, Gus Ripa and the 10-member Touchstone cast.
According to a Touchstone press release, "'Ulysses Dreams' finds the title character aged and reflecting on his legendary life. From playing by the sea in childhood, to going off to the Trojan War, to his journey home again, his dreams and visions revolve around women who altered the course of his life, including his mother, his wife, nymphs, sirens and other gods and mortals. As he remembers, these dreams come to life before his eyes."
In addition to Touchstone Ensemble Members and Apprentices, the "Ulysses Dreams" company includes Jack Armstrong, who starred in Touchstone's "A Resting Place"; Teague Fernandez, a Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Arts student; Susan Chase, a former Touchstone Ensemble Member; and Felix Mayes, a recent Muhlenberg College graduate.
There's also a six-person band led by Music Director Kevin O'Boyle (Touchstone's "Christmas City Follies").
In the press release, Touchstone Managing Director Lisa Jordan says that, with "Ulysses Dreams," "Touchstone returns to form with outdoor, movement and music-based ensemble production."
Jp Jordan, Touchstone Artistic Director, oversaw direction of the project, from co-writing the original text and music, to co-designing the production elements, to overseeing music rehearsals.
"It's set up as a song cycle. There are seven songs. There are seven segments," says Jp Jordan.
The song cycle, a genre which originated in classical German music, entails a group of songs designed to be played together in sequence.
"Ulysses Dreams" began as a glimmer in Bill George's and Gus Ripa's eyes about one and one-half years ago.
"Bill and Gus Ripa of Lehigh had been talking about putting together a one- or two-person show on the 'Odyssey,'" Jp Jordan recounts. "We put it through the Touchstone devising process.
"We starting heavily work-shopping it in September. There was a time when we were work-shopping this, rehearsing ['Christmas City] Follies' and running ['The] Pan' [Show]."
Jp Jordan describes the odyssey of "Ulysses Dreams":
"We had the entire text of the 'Odyssey.' I asked Bill [George] to whittle it down to 12 chapters. My challenge to the Touchstone ensemble was that I wanted to see four variations on each of the chapters Bill came up with. This was in late August .
"We had these 48 scene fragments, or proposals, that we looked at Christopher and I and then we went into writing. The big question was: 'How do we frame this?'
"We imposed the song cycle idea. We wrote the songs.
"We imposed the poetry idea. We wrote the poems.
"And we imposed the idea of the female energies. Basically, what we came up with was the vehicle to tell the story and what became the new source material.
"With all that imposed that was given back to the ensemble."
Jp Jordan and Shorr wrote the words and music during the December 2012 holiday break.
"The Ensemble had another chance to propose ideas."
At the end of February, Jp Jordan asked George "to take each of these new proposals and choreograph fully each of the songs.
"Bill choreographed to the music each one of the seven songs. We got them up on their feet and we started crunching that."
In "Ulysses Dreams," seven women portray the "female energies." Bill George, as Old Ulysses, is the storyteller. Kyle Lewis is the Young Ulysses. There's a chorus of four men and four women.
Observes Jp Jordan of "Ulysses Dreams": "It directly relates to 'The Civil War Project.' People like when Touchstone's outside. We're sort of uniquely poised to give them this type of show.
"It's not just 'Shakespeare in the Park.' It's distinctly Touchstone an ensemble-created, movement-based company and a street-performance company.
Previously, Touchstone presented "Don Quixote" (2010) and "A Resting Place" (2012), the latter part of "The Civil War Project" connoting the war's 150th anniversary.
"These really energizes the community. There's really something beautiful about. Hopefully, it says 'Let's keep our parks clean' and make good use of public space.
"It's at the center of what we do. How can we energize a community? I think kids seeing this kind of thing outdoors to me, it offers hope. That there's something more than watching TV. Bethlehem's such an awesome place for that."
In the press release, Touchstone Ensemble Member and co-founder Bill George, stated, "I'm particularly excited about the cast of 10, working out of doors and the effectiveness of strong visual elements in a mildly abstract style supporting a vibrant and powerful musical narrative.
"Touchstone hasn't worked like this in, I don't know, over 15 years at least. It's great to see us dusting off these techniques and taking them to another level, integrating the talents of the Ensemble into a more powerful and poetic dramatic form," George stated.
Touchstone's origins are rooted in tradition of street theater and outdoor performance. Over the years, its repertoire has grown and expanded to include community-based works, adaptations of classic texts and original plays.
Looking ahead, Touchstone plans another community-based project.
"Journey from the East" is a two-year exploration of the influx of Chinese in Bethlehem, largely the result of Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem-bound gamblers from New York City and the casino hiring of Chinese employees.
Jp Jordan said Touchstone, partnering again with Moravian College, is working with Constance Cook, Lehigh University Professor of Chinese, Director Lehigh in Shanghai Program, and Mary Wright, who will direct a piece in April 2014, and on a subsequent production to be presented in April 2015 at the Chinese Harmony Pavilion along the South Bethlehem Greenway.
For "Ulysses Dreams," an area at the South Bethlehem Greenway along Mechanic Street in the vicinity of the multi-tiered South Bethlehem Greenway near Polk and Taylor streets, will be cordoned off where those who purchase tickets will be provided seating.
Tickets: Touchstone Theatre box office, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem; touchstone.org; 484-767-2456