If you visit Double Edge Theatre at its Ashfield farm in the next month, the first thing you’ll notice is a sea of sails. Sprouting from a grassy platform, a fleet of sails billow on 25-foot masts, representing the 10-year voyage related in Homer’s Odyssey. The sails, fashioned not from canvas but from wool, also evoke one of the epic’s most famous episodes.
The Odyssey, tracing the Greek general Odysseus’ often-interrupted homeward journey after the Trojan War, is the latest in the theater’s summertime series of family-friendly “traveling spectacles”—peripatetic collages of physical theater, poetic text, homemade music and aerial acrobatics that lead the audience over a five-acre indoor-outdoor stage. I recently strolled through the performance areas as company members and guest artists put the finishing touches on their work.
The woolen sails—plus a flotilla of tin ones that flash in the sun on a nearby hillside—are the work of Valley artist Nancy Winship Milliken. She’s one of several professional artists who, aided by scores of local volunteers, are creating the show’s visual look and feel. All are donating their time and talents, drawn by the company’s adventurous aesthetic and the challenge of working with such an expansive palette.
For Milliken, using wool to build the sails brings together two elements, earth and air. “The wool material relates to the land, and a sail lets you visualize the wind, something that’s invisible,” she explains while repairing a tear in one of the sails. “I love that. It’s very poetic.”
A pathway between flowering shrubs opens onto a circular playing area representing the island of the nymph Calypso, where the wandering Odysseus is held captive. Two stone monoliths, erected by stonemason and Ashfield neighbor Jim Vieira, overlook the circle. At the edge of the space, a shipwrecked skiff lies on its side, symbolizing the many perils of the hero’s long voyage. Above it, Brian Fairley swings from a tree, testing one of the bungee harnesses on which three Olympian gods will take flight.
In the center of the circle, Buckland-based mosaic artist Cynthia Fisher and her assistant, Lee Oldenburg, are creating another circle: a stained-glass mosaic inspired by the art of Marc Chagall. As I approach, Fisher shoos me away. “Come back a little later,” she pleads. She’s in the middle of a very tricky procedure and can’t be distracted.
Stacy Klein, Double Edge’s founder and artistic director, tells me this kind of intensity is typical of the pace and scope of the work on this production. “This is the biggest thing we’ve ever done,” she explains. She always has big ideas, she adds, “and no one believes me, and then we do it. But this is humongous even for me.”
In a large stand of flowering sumac hung with raw wool fleeces (here’s the connection to the woolen sails), a prop rehearsal is underway for the scene in which Odysseus and his crew are trapped in the cave of the Cyclops and escape by clinging to the fleecy underbellies of the giant’s sheep. Carlos Uriona, who plays Odysseus, is seated on a woolpack while Matthew Glassman, perched above him in the branches, is learning to manipulate a huge papier-m?ch? mask that is the face of the one-eyed Cyclops.
The sound of singing draws me to the banks of a stream where I find a trio of women knee-deep in the water, practicing a seafaring ballad in three-part Balkan-flavored harmony. Their leader, Milena Dabova, plays the princess Nausicaa, who discovers the shipwrecked Odysseus washed up on her shore. She shows me the scale-model replica of an ancient Greek vessel, manned by a puppet Odysseus, that will be used to enact the storm and shipwreck in miniature on the waters of the stream.
The puppet was built by Hayley Wood of Northampton, who is also creating the set for Odysseus’ palace in Ithaca where his wife, Penelope, awaits his return, besieged by a gang of would-be suitors. Wood explains that each of the guest artists has led at least one day-long “work bee,” when a dozen or more volunteers—many of them local art students or adult amateurs—pitch in to help with a labor-intensive portion of the process. In Wood’s case, she outlined her designs, based on ancient Greek motifs, on wooden panels that were then painted in by helpers, in much the same way the workshops of Renaissance masters like Rubens and Raphael operated.
“The community has really wrapped itself around the project this year,” Glassman says after descending from the sumac. He estimates that over 50 local supporters, many of them Ashfield neighbors, have participated in creating the production. He and Uriona are walking with me toward the building where the Circe episode will be staged.
“It’s all about playing, what we do,” Uriona says. “An artist comes to us with an idea and we say, ‘Let’s do it.’ Jim [Vieira] came to see our shows and suggested maybe we’d like some stonework. And of course we would. ‘No’ is not an answer for us. There’s no ‘no.'”
When Odysseus lands on the island of the enchantress Circe, she keeps him as her lover after turning his drunken men into swine. That scene takes place atop the roof of an open shed above an actual pigpen with three actual pigs, borrowed from a local farmer. Painter Paula Bird is decorating the walls of the stalls with colorful images connected to the story.
“What’s so nice about working here is the freedom to create,” she says while filling in the figure of a falling man that also suggests a pig’s head. A theatrical scene painter by profession, she says, “I’m used to being handed plans and told, ‘Here, just do it,’ so this is really inspiring.”
With everything else that will be going on during the performance, does Bird think the audience will even notice her murals? “The whole show is kind of a sensory overload,” she admits, “but in a good way. I think what’s really cool about a performance here is, everybody walks away with something different. Maybe you noticed the landscape at night, or maybe you noticed the music or the scenery, while at the same time the play was going on.”
In the main indoor performance space, a converted barn, Stacy Klein shows me a banquet table that metamorphoses into—”No! This is off the record,” she cautions me. “We have to keep some secrets for the audience to discover.” As we head out over the lawn to the pond where most of the summer shows conclude, she describes a new relationship the company has developed with Elsie Smith of the Brattleboro-based New England Center for Circus Arts.
“She’s been training us in her acrobat skills,” Klein says, “which is really good, because we needed to go somewhere new.” Gazing over the pond, Klein adds with a slight smile, “I’m not even going to tell you what she’s got going here, but it’s pretty amazing.”
We’re approached by costume designer Tadea Klein (Stacy’s daughter) and her co-worker Nancy Horn. Hayley Brown is in tow, wearing the flowing costume for her role as Circe. The question is whether the skirt will allow her to perform all the physical feats required of her. While Brown runs off to experiment with shinnying up a pole (no problem, as it turns out), the younger Klein explains her approach to costuming this multi-layered production: “We wanted to work with fabric that has different colors, and layer them to achieve different effects. We’re experimenting with fabrics that change color according to the light. So something that looks one way in the full sun will look entirely different inside under the spotlights, and even more different outside under the moon.”
Cynthia Fisher sends word that she’s now in a more relaxed place with the mosaic, and I double back to Calypso’s garden to have a look. Chagall’s lithographs based on literary sources have informed the visual style of several previous Double Edge productions. Now Fisher and Oldenburg are creating a permanent installation that incorporates images from The Odyssey and other Chagall themes. A winding river flows through the circular design, looped by a ribbon of mirror fragments and inlaid with images of fish, flowers, boats and Calypso herself.
“What really sold me on doing this project,” Fisher says, “was when we were talking about it with Stacy, I said, ‘You have the option of using broken tile, which would look more authentic, or stained glass, which would be more beautiful.’ And Stacy immediately said, ‘We want beautiful.’ So I said, ‘I’m on board.’ I felt like I get what they’re about. There’s a spirit to this place. You come up here and you’re happy right away.”
The Odyssey plays at Double Edge Theatre, 948 Conway Rd., Ashfield, Wed.-Sun. 8 p.m. through Aug. 21. Information (413) 628-0277, tickets (866) 811-4111, doubleedgetheatre.org.