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EPICish

nytheatre.com review by Sergei Burbank
August 11, 2013

For those lucky enough to have visited, Savannah is an entrancing city. Contrasted against the newness of much of America, Savannah feels impossibly old. It is the survivor of more than one brush with its demise; as a port city it absorbs elements of all who pass through, yielding a patchwork culture in which one’s value is directly tied to their relation to the city itself rather than other distant abstract origins. Cultures that live on the water -- like Savannah, or New York City, or Athens -- have a front row seat to awe-inspiring displays of energy: be they storms arriving from off-shore or invading armies seeking passage to the sea; therefore, they have a different understanding of history that is tied to tides.

Savannah provides a fitting backdrop for Eve A. Butler’s EPICish, which channels the voices of three women in our present era into retellings of three classic epic narratives: Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and the Odyssey. Selected plot elements of each poem serve as departure points for freewheeling meditations on love, loss, and the city of Savannah. The Nordic hero becomes Bea Woolf, a hard-edged warrior protecting her best friend from the monster of an abusive boyfriend; the subject of the Mesopotamian epic becomes Masha, a mercurial Russian expat artist; and Homer’s sea-strewn traveler is reduced to a drunken absentee parent, Odessa. (While a working knowledge of the source material is not essential to taking in the evening, it will allow you to enjoy some puns on other character names.)

We are told in the program notes that the first two pieces are refractions from a wider fictional universe of Butler’s creation, and in addition to the Savannah shout outs, they do indeed feel like slices of that larger world. The evening goes off the rails a bit in its final third, as we lose that concrete sense of place -- both within the character’s tale and for the character herself: the references to Homer are there, but unlike the first two, we’re not as clear as to why she’s here or who she’s talking to.

Nevertheless, there is an interesting tension between the content of the works and the overall arc of the evening; true to its title, as the stories are modernized, they are reduced in scale -- not epic so much as epic-adjacent, recounting relationships gone bad and poor choices made, but no giants stride across this earth. The show as a whole is an elevation of the form, replacing a performer-addresses-the-audience conceit with multiple shows-within-the-show, starting at a full run from the very first moment and daring you to keep up. Butler portrays each character, but the settings vary from piece to piece, including a coffee house open mic and an interview with an unseen journalist. We are voyeurs witnessing each scene, and although Butler’s characters break the fourth wall to address their audience directly, it is only an audience, not us.

As a performer, Butler evinces a relaxed ease as the focus of attention, and an active engagement with the room as it is (bar-based interruptions and all) rather than some platonic ideal. That relaxed attitude makes the language of the play feel truly improvised (perhaps, at times, too improvised). In the era of smartphone-toting audiences, a two-intermission show is less an imposition than in the days of old, as the breaks in the action (the duration of which seem to equal the running time of the actual show) afford us ample time to check our facebook feeds.

Production gripes aside, Butler’s skill as a true storyteller are on display, since the protagonist of each tale is, in fact, not the one speaking to us from the stage. There are many one-person productions in this year’s FringeNYC in which a character will tread the boards and recount in 60 minutes or so their own tale -- one that is supposed to distinguish them as a person worthy of the audience’s gaze. But genuine storytelling is the recounting of another’s exploits. When the words come from a witness to greatness, for whom the witnessing itself forever changed life, our lives are subsequently changed in the recounting.

For all its name puns, f-bombs, and pop culture references, I would hazard that EPIC-ish is the only evening of storytelling in true Homerian tradition on offer this year.