Epic attempt fails the conquering hero : Westmont’s ‘Anon(ymous)’ mashes Homer, American immigrants in new myth

In Naomi Iizuka’s “Anon(ymous),” Anon (Tyler Leivo) becomes the amusing refugee to the spoiled Calista (Sarah Halford).

February 27, 2008 7:24 AM
Stepping into the ring clutching a copy of Homer’s “The Odyssey,” playwright Naomi Iizuka joins a pack of artists, which includes James Joyce and the Coen Brothers, inspired by this epic ode. Her contemporary re-think, “Anon(ymous),” opened last week at Westmont College’s Porter Theater and attempts not only to update the tale, but also to pull it back into the mythic, and with varying results.
In Homer’s original tale, Ulysses’ journey home from the Trojan wars is fraught with diversions, dangers and temptations. Faithful wife Penelope waits and waits, with suitors jockeying for the position, should she be widowed. For Ulysses, he can and can’t go home again.
For Anon (Tyler Leivo), and other refugees in Ms. Iizuka’s work, home can’t be reached because it doesn’t exist. Having escaped from war and poverty, the wanderers find themselves adrift in a promised land that confuses and confounds them. Having washed up on a seashore (presumably Florida), Anon dreams of his mother and his homeland, knowing he can never reach them.
Elsewhere, in the play’s parallel narrative, Nemasani (Marie Ponce) plays the Penelope role, working in a sweatshop, knitting a shroud for the child she lost at sea. She spurns the advances of shop head Yuri Mackus (Nolan Hamlin) by pledging marriage only when she finishes the shroud (and then she unravels her stitching).
“Anon(ymous)” sets Anon on his journey, though his destination isn’t clear. Along the way he meets a raging Cyclops (Diana Small), barfly Lotus Eaters, Nausicaa (Beth Segura) and is watched over by the goddess Athena, here called Naja (also played by Ms. Segura).
Director John Blondell seems to like large ensemble plays, such as “Anon(ymous),” because it gives a seasonal display to the full range of Westmont’s drama students. With the play episodic in nature, students get a chance to ham it up — see Sarah Halford’s parody of a spoiled rich girl (Calypso in the play) or Ms. Small’s cannibalistic Zyclo — much to the delight of the audience. There’s also a chance an actor will stand out and be the one to watch this season — this evening it was Anna Lieberman, who breathed life into her brief role as Pascal, Anon’s traveling partner.
Mr. Blondell’s staging is, as usual, fascinating, with a convincing sweatshop made of chairs and repetitious movements from the actors, and a convincing train tunnel journey lit by flashlight and light bulbs. The simple but mysterious backdrop designed by Darcy Scanlin provides surprising exits and entrances, and the lighting by Jonathan Hicks complements with the appropriate atmosphere.
The play, however, is weak. Ms. Iizuka’s characters are all ciphers, stand-ins for the “immigrant experience” or one-to-one versions of their mythical counterparts. All the immigrants in “Anon(ymous)” are noble and goodhearted, and those they come across on land are exploitative, hypocrites and/or evil. There’s not much room for discussion after that.
“Anon(ymous)” attempts a mythic understanding of the journeys and experiences many future Americans undergo — the romanticizing of the home country, the mother worship, the comforts of home cooking, the dehumanization and the Otherness of the subject. “Mythic” here runs the risk of becoming clichè.
But then Ms. Iizuka forces this myth on top of the other, and things get tangled. No version of Ithaca exists for Anon to travel to, so Ms. Iizuka replaces the motherland with the mother. But Anon doesn’t know she exists, so where exactly is he heading again? Realistic economics enter into the story when it suits the myth, but disappear when they don’t. As for Penelope switching from wife to mother, that’s for Oedipus to sort out.
The character of Anon comes across as petulant and directionless. Standing in for everybody, Anon is precisely the “nobody” he claims in the play. But that leaves Mr. Leivo attempting to play a concept instead of a person, and halfway through the play it’s hard to find interest in his fate. When he acts the hero — as in the Cyclops sequence or in the video game fighting-style ending — the moment springs from nowhere and is never followed up. The rest is wandering.
It’s unclear what we are supposed to take from “Anon(ymous).” If we are to see our own stories as part of a collective narrative, then the interest lies where we divert from the story and not remain on the path. If this is a critique of First World exploitation, then it’s a cartoon polemic. If there is room for a new myth, a worthy hero needs to rise first.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Porter Theater, Westmont College, 955 La Paz Rd.
Cost: $15 general, $7 students and seniors
Information: 565-7140
©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

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