On Feb. 2, audiences at Théâtre Sainte-Catherine attended the opening night of Ithacan Idol Presents: The Odyssey, this year’s rendition of the McGill Classics Play. Since 2011, the McGill Classics Play program has showcased annual student-led English performances of ancient Greek and Latin texts, in addition to offering public lectures from guest speakers and free workshops for the community.
In 2023’s installment of the theatrical tradition, directors Audrey Michel and Emma Weiser adapted the classic Greek epic The Odyssey into a spunky, fun, and subversive game show that asks, “Who is Odysseus?”
Set amid Odysseus’s (Gabrielle Gaston, U3 Arts) travels away from home, the play centres around his loving wife, Penelope’s (Fiona Vail, U3 Arts) staging of the Ithacan Idol: A competition in which contestants perform their own renditions of Odysseus’s story to prove who knows the epic hero best. The show’s open-ended nature allows every contestant to shine in their own unique ways, each showing off a different school of thought used to dissect The Odyssey throughout history.
From the Victorian era to modern fan fiction, the cast is replete with colourful caricatures of each method. Percy (El Bush, U2 Arts) proclaims the heroism of both Odysseus and football. Mabel (Zeynep Alsancak, U2 Science) taps into the artistic sensuality of his adulterous affairs, much to Penelope’s chagrin. Charlie (Charlie Gagnon, U2 Arts) expresses the beauty in the epic hero’s humanity. Lexi (Maddie Butler, U3 Arts) retells Circe’s side of the story with heaps of confidence and an affinity for self-promotion. Lastly, Georgie (Théa Sebaaly, U0 Arts) critiques Odysseus’s colonial impact.
As the contestants repeatedly argue over which perspective is correct, each interpretation’s strengths and shortcomings come to light. While Charlie protests a critique of Odysseus that denies him the ability to make mistakes, Georgie counters by pointing out his disturbing treatment of Polyphemus (Théa Sebaaly, U0 Arts) that mirrors settler colonialism. Among important debates about interpreting historical figures with a modern sensibility, audiences are treated to hilarious bits and quips, including Lexi’s references to online culture and the reimagination of Odysseus’s crew as a gaggle of frat boys. In a post-show talkback, Michel explained the intent behind the decision to balance each perspective.
“I think what was very important to us is not putting one reception of the Odyssey above the others, in a sense,” Michel said. “All are important, and all are important to see together, but also, all are incomplete.”
Penelope stands as the character with perhaps the most complete story arc. While many of the contestants remain somewhat tied to the caricatured qualities of their era’s interpretation style, Penelope’s upbeat, confident demeanour noticeably fades over the course of the two acts as Odysseus’ flaws are put on full display. Michel and Weiser focused significantly on Penelope’s development, which culminates in an effective emotional monologue that showcases the Ithacan queen in a raw, vulnerable light.
When discussing their motivation to dissect The Odyssey in this year’s performance during the play’s talkback, Weiser expressed a feeling of being “haunted” by Odysseus: “He has been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times throughout literary history that we just knew we wanted to do something to kind of showcase that slipperiness of his.”
The play’s centring of Penelope and its highlighting of The Odyssey’s various interpretations cleverly produces an introspective on the work’s long history of reception and adaptation. Complete with eccentric personas, clever reimaginations of supporting characters, and well-written monologues, Ithacan Idol Presents: The Odyssey provides a unique educational deep-dive into an iconic hero.
Ithacan Idol Presents: The Odyssey will complete its final performances on Feb. 9 and 10 at the Théâtre Sainte-Catherine, both at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online. On Feb. 10, at 2:30 p.m., the accompanying McGill Classics Play Talk will take place in Leacock 808.