Saturday, July 20, 2024

Actor and playwright Kate Hamill.

Kate Hamill’s father would read “The Odyssey” to her as a bedtime story, landing Homer’s epic poem on the actor and playwright’s bucket list of works. She wrote a first draft of a stage adaptation in 2017 and followed it with a virtual workshop in 2020.

The American Repertory Theater will feature a free live reading of that adaptation at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Harvard University’s Farkas Hall Studio, 10-12 Holyoke St., Harvard Square, Cambridge.

It’s not the version Hamill heard as a child, or that any student read in school.

Dating back to the seventh century B.C., Homer’s epic follows the decade long Trojan War through the journey of one of its greatest heroes, Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, as he sails the Mediterranean aimlessly for another 10 years before finally returning home to a city that’s forgotten him. Along the way he faces a giant cyclops, half-bird, half-woman sirens and a tentacled sea monster called the Scylla.

“I loved it. I thought it was so cool, fun and great. And now when I got older, I thought, well, those are very violent stories to tell your kids,” Hamill said.

This three-act adaptation opens a conversation about surviving trauma, the shared roles men and women play during wartime and how embracing forgiveness can end cycles of violence.

Hamill says workshops for the epic never fail to draw parallels to contemporary conflicts – as long as there is violence in the world, the Odyssey will be relevant. Much of her research for this adaptation involved talking to veterans about their experiences.

“There’s lots of swearing in this play, there’s sex in this play, there’s certainly violence in this play, because I want it to feel real to people who are in combat,” Hamill said.

But war affects civilians as much as heroes. Homer’s original story forced many characters into a binary: as if the men went off to war and the women waited for them at home. But Hamill explains that violence affects people all across the gender spectrum – it’s not like only the men are going through the trauma.

“My adaptation does not really believe that [Penelope] just sat there for 20 years weaving while Odysseus was away,” Hamill said.

The play is narrated by three women who arise from the ashes of Troy and guide Odysseus along his travels.

“The fact that these women, who push us through the whole play, are always there with us reflects war in its totality,” Hamill said.

Working closely with director Shana Cooper and movement director Steph Paul over two weeks of development, Hamill’s version commissioned by the ART reimagines witches, sirens and sea monsters for the stage – making Homer’s epic elements accessible to today’s audiences.

Hamill tries to stray away from traditionally rigid adaptations – there is always a new lens that could speak to today. Her retelling features modern dialogue set in a liminal space between the seventh century BC and 21st century.

There are no gods in Hamill’s Odyssey.

Information about the readings is here.


This post was updated Oct. 17, 2023, to show that audiences are limited to a 7:30 p.m. reading.