THEATER REVIEW Touchstone's 'Ulysses Dreams' realized
Vouchsafe it to say that nothing like Touchstone Theatre's "Ulysses Dreams" was going on when the outdoor theater work was being presented for only its fourth performance April 14 at the Bethlehem Greenway Amphitheater no, not in any park, in any city, anywhere in the United States, or in any nation in the whole wide world.
"Ulysses Dreams," subtitled "an exploration of origin and destiny," will be presented again, noon, 4 p.m. April 20, 21 at the amphitheater. The impressionistic work is created by Jp Jordan, Touchtone artistic director; Christopher Shorr, Moravian College Theatre Company artistic director; Bill George, Touchstone co-founder; Augustine Ripa, Lehigh University professor of theater; and the Touchstone Ensemble.
The premiere is the inaugural theater piece for the Bethlehem Greenway Amphitheater. The outdoor area is utilized particularly well. How perfect that the amphitheater is more or less on the doorstep of Touchstone, staging work for 30-plus years.
In poetic words narrated by Bill George, as Old Ulysses, the story unfolds literally with yards of blue and aqua material undulating like waves in the hands of nine cast members (augmented by a breezy afternoon) through seven vignettes, underscored by a six-piece, amplified ensemble of cymbal, bells, glockenspiel, toy piano, electric guitar and bass, trumpet and French horn, drum set and tympani, as the audience hears of Ulysses' travels, travails and resignation.
"Ulysses Dreams" is aptly named. Ulysses is a self-professed "teller of tales, dreamer of dreams." The lilt and cadence of the words is meditative."Trust the water. Trust the wind." The effect is mesmerizing.
Off your mind sails on uncharted seas to shores unknown. "Oh, you Spartan fools, what havoc have you wrought?" At times, the words can be uncannily accurate. "There's a hint of shiver in the air."
How appropriate that "Ulysses Dreams" is being presented during National Poetry Month. The narration is Shakespearean. "A cunning man cannot refuse a challenge. Such is the curse of waxen wings." Neither can a cunning theater like Touchstone resist challenging work.
The story is a kind of "Our Town" of Greek mythology. With "Ulysses Dreams," the narrator is all-important and with Bill George, the work is well-served by his noble bearing, emphatic yet sensitive voice and command of the outdoor space. He has been a central character in most of Touchstone's greatest hits ("Steelbound," which pioneered what would become the SteelStacks project). The rhythms and resonance of his words echo off the walls of buildings along Mechanic Street, between Third and Fourth streets on Bethlehem's south side.
As the piece unfolds, sounds of a city hang in the air: chirping birds, bicycles whizzing by, commercial airliners vectoring toward Lehigh Valley International Airport, a police siren and the train horn of a Norfolk Southern freight.
"Ulysses Dreams" is at once movement-based, ceremonial, processional, ritualistic, presentational, highly-symbolic and mysterious. It is not necessary to completely understand it. Perhaps it is unknowable. There aren't a lot of laughs. This is, after all, Greek tragedy. Let the experience flow over you.
The actors echo the spoken words, as if a Greek chorus of movement, fully utilizing the three-tiered concrete space, with seven curved bases, cascading staircase and two street lamps, from which fisherman's netting is draped. Six stations are set up, like totems, arrayed along a concrete balustrade, each representing props (Ulysses' ship in miniature, nautical ropes, masks), or draped with cloth of gold.
The ensemble includes Jack Armstrong, Susan Chase, Emma Chong, Teague Fernandez, Kathryn Krull, Felix Mayes, Kayla Prestel and Gary Warren.
In Mary Wright's costume design, the actors, including Bill George, are attired in nearly identical cream tunics (festooned with sparkles on the females) butterscotch-colored pants, with sashes and scarves of crimson. The actors, especially Kyle Lewis as Young Ulysses, bring life to Ulysses' words, amplifying, exploring and revealing.
The band includes Kevin O'Boyle, music director, and Erick Black, Jason Hedrington, Dan Leathersich, Chris O'Donnell and Daniel Sottile.
"Ulysses Dreams" is the kind of piece you'd see performed in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. It takes theater back to its Greek roots, outdoors, as it should be. "Ulysses Dreams" is not only a tour de force; it is a force of nature.
Let's hope, as with Touchstone's "A Resting Place," which premiered in mid-April last year, an outdoor performance piece will become an annual Bethlehem event. Looking head, Touchstone's "Journey from the East" is in the works for April 2014.
Meanwhile, there's "Ulysses Dreams." Don't miss it. Invest in a ticket and relax on a chair, up close and personal, for a fully immersive theater experience.