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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Joseph Medeiros’s Odyssey of the Self

Joseph Medeiros’s projector.
Joseph Medeiros’s projector.

After texting that you’ve arrived, Joseph Medeiros will open his building’s front door and greet you with a lamp. Its electric light pales beneath the blood orange sun setting over Woodside, the performer’s home, but, once inside, the lamp becomes a lifeline.

Medeiros will usher you, in silence, down dark, winding stairs, hovering the light near your feet as you descend. The shifting step directions disorient; the journey brings to mind exiting a new subway station, from which, after emerging, north feels like south. Except, instead of climbing up out of the ground, you’re spelunking in Queens.

Odyssey 1: Telemachus at Home, Medeiros’s enactment of the first book of Homer’s epic, takes place in the actor’s subterranean living room. The tight quarters limit inventory: presented for an audience of three and supported by Dan Stone and InStone Productions, the play is currently sold out, but its waitlist holds promise and Medeiros adds shows when his schedule allows. That the work is recited entirely in Ancient Greek does not deter patrons. No need for Duolingo; shows in English have been less clear.

Bridging a linguistic gap, Medeiros’s shared language is communion. You’ll sit, with a pair of other guests, on your host’s well-loved, pickle-green couch, and he’ll offer red wine before scribbling questions on Post-It notes. “It’s a little warm,” one read when I saw the show in early July. “Does anyone want an ice pack?”

Part of Medeiros’s playing space.
Part of Medeiros’s playing space.

It’s not just Medeiros’s hospitality that made Telemachus at Home perhaps the most inviting theater experience I’ve ever had; it’s also the event’s immediacy. In his unfussy one-bedroom apartment, the spry, impish Medeiros is never more than five feet from you. He offers a sweeping story in a throw rug’s amount of space.

That restriction broadens imagination, as does the dim lighting: a single candle, a shaded lamp’s fuzzy glow, and a projection’s gleaming white text (“Take a seat & I’ll be with you shortly”). If you have to use the toilet before the performance begins, Medeiros will lead you to the bathroom, but step in first. Don’t use the overhead light, he gestures, but instead toggle this switch—a dimmer tethered to a clamp light, affixed to the shower curtain rod. When he sees you understand, his smile dazzles more than the bathroom fluorescent ever could.

Sitting on the couch, the basement’s gentle darkness asked if my world would expand. I let it. Sipping red wine from souvenir mugs and pressed between Jonah, Kyle, and Cass (a ticketing snafu meant four people were attending this performance; “Sorry about the squeezing!” another Post-It read), I felt as if we were the strange leftovers of some late-night party. We started discussing our favorite animals. Time suspended; the performance felt distant. If you told me people have made new friends or fallen in love on that couch, I’d believe it.

All of this, and Medeiros hasn’t uttered an iota. Then, he takes his seat.

Needless to say, a lot happens in the Odyssey. To give his spectators a hand, Medeiros uses his Kodak Ektagraphic III AMT slide projector to introduce major plot points and characters, speaking their names when they flash on the scrim so you later recognize their sounds. (In the Homeric dialect, “Athena” is pronounced Ah-TEN-ah.)

Some of the Post-Its from Book 1.
Some of the Post-Its from Book 1.

Slides offer the basics of Odysseus’s nostos—the king has been away fighting the Trojan War; Telemachus awaits his father’s return and Penelope her husband’s, as boisterous suitors look to win her hand. Just as important, the slides nod toward the experience itself. “I'm just doing this / so you feel like you won't be / lost,” they read. “But you won't be / because / we find out a lot when we're lost.”

Cramped in the dark, the comforting flicker of the slides, the rhythmic clicking of their rotation, and their mild poetry all made me emotional. “If you wander,” more read, “take note of where your mind goes / It’s wonderful information for you to have / A window into / Your self.”

With his prologue done, Medeiros becomes an octopus. Corded switches dangle like tentacles over his slight knees as he begins performing the text, pressing buttons to shift lights and mark scene changes; blue gels represent Poseidon, pink Athena. Or, that’s how I interpreted the cues. I made no attempt to decipher the foreign tongue—I’m sorry to say it’s all Greek to me.

Nonetheless, Medeiros’s storytelling is startlingly clear. Switching between characters, his supreme stuffiness sounds of Zeus and droll millennial cadence connotes Telemachus. He puppeteers his playing space, showcasing a dexterous sleight of hand. Medeiros strikes a match in the dark, yanks at a pulley’s string to raise wings heralding Hermes, and animates trinkets on his shelf. The spellbinding production is a clarion call for gum-and-shoestring theatricality in which every bookshelf knick knack and practical light is maximized and necessary, whether you’ve taken note of them or not. Medeiros’s gestures to communicate the narrative double as reaches for the next prop, which eagerly awaits his hand. If the magician were an inch shorter or taller, his entire constellation of tricks would have to realign.

Squint in the dark, and the set dressing reveals an aesthetic. Poseidon’s cartoon sea animal drapes evoke a pediatrician’s wallpaper, and the suitors’ dinner trays feature nineties Nickelodeon characters. The apartment becomes a life-sized Joseph Cornell memory box, a bespoke diorama that at first amuses but aches the longer you stare.

Hidden projectors beam and flash text on new surfaces; the back of a toy piano hosts more contextual slides, but soon also a grainy photograph of a child’s birthday party. Then, an image of someone’s parents. Another of a kid, expectant.

Telemachus at Home is also, literally, Medeiros at home, and his personal memorabilia haunts. Surrounded by a retro Game Boy, Crayola crayons box, and family photos, Medeiros highlights his title character’s naivety, how unready he is to inherit Odysseus’s throne.

A rumination on sonhood, Telemachus at Home sees its royal child in a liminal space, between youth and adulthood, and also trapped in a maturity purgatory as he awaits his coming-of-age and the return of his father, off battling foes and defending his wife and son’s name.

Revisit old family photos; isn’t yours its own story of endurance?

A few days after hearing the first book in Medeiros’s home, I went to the Ramble in Central Park to experience the second. A group of about ten—including another rigorous interpreter of challenging texts, David Greenspan—had gathered on the grass on a muggy Sunday afternoon despite the threat of rain.

The frenzy of a weekend in Central Park gave Odyssey 2 a more manic backdrop as tour groups gawked at the man reciting Ancient Greek and badminton players became part of the set. Medeiros’s al fresco staging fits as, in Homer’s second book, Telemachus goes out into the world and endures greater scrutiny: Penelope’s suitors have ravaged their home atop Ithaca, and her son calls on the gods to punish them.

The Ramble where Book 2 takes place.
The Ramble where Book 2 takes place.

Seeing Telemachus at Home is not required before Odyssey 2, whose public production also invites easier access and larger audiences. Out of the basement, Medeiros’s wizardry might seem more detectable in the park’s broad daylight. Not so. Even Helios can’t make visible Medeiros’s surprises.

Medeiros pulls out a whole watermelon, rainwheel, and plastic boat from his Mary Poppins bag: a large, cubic vessel that sits on the back of his bike as it might for a Seamless deliverer. Each new prop elicits wonder. Shirts with characters’ names (Mentor, Eurycleia, Telemachus) spring out and identify speakers—outfits became, in the July humidity, increasingly sticky, but Medeiros cycles through them with the alacrity of a backstage-changing runway model.

Still, Telemachus at Home was more polished. In the confines of his own home, Medeiros wielded greater control. Outside, with distractions aplenty, a few lines were flubbed and beats forgotten, but, if anything, those cracks only called attention to the sheer scale of Medeiros’s feat. The first book is 444 lines; the second, 434. Medeiros began performing Telemachus at Home just before COVID. He restarted in 2022 and has since performed it about seventy times. Odyssey 2, which has tried on a few different subtitles, is a fresher play.

It’s also a more athletic, demanding one. At the conclusion of the second book, Telemachus decides to leave home to find his father, sailing off to Pylos and Sparta. Medeiros theatricalizes this by boxing up his dozens of shirts, toys, and watermelon chunks, packing them into his bag and hoisting it onto the back of his bike. Emboldened, Telemachus feels the gods are with him, and Medeiros insists they are: a wig for Athena and crown spelling out her name sit atop his head.

He kicks off, as well as one can on uneven grass with a fifty-pound box in tow, and leaves the Ramble and his audience behind. Riding off, it’s not hard to imagine Dionysus himself blessing our unshrinking traveler.

Next, part three? A fundraiser garnered more than double Medeiros’s goal to present the third book. The setting for that one won’t be a park, or Medeiros’s apartment, but yours—the piece will travel from home to home, ever expanding the scope of the creator’s inventiveness.

Back on Medeiros’s couch, after the first book concluded, Jonah, Kyle, Cass, and I stuck around for a few moments. We started chit chatting; Medeiros joined in, now speaking in English. In discussing his journey with the piece, he cheekily lamented that, as he looks to chronicle all twenty-four books of the poem, he’s perhaps pigeonholed himself. “I guess I’m the guy who does the Odyssey,” he said.

We laughed, and then the air became contemplative. Thousands of lines, countless rehearsal hours, growth and artmaking’s years and decades. The task seemed both insurmountable and like Medeiros’s calling, an odyssey unto itself.

Unprepared or fortified, Medeiros, a marvel, has found his glass slipper—or perhaps his combat boots.

To sign up to hear about future performances, visit Joseph Medeiros’ website.


Billy McEntee

Billy McEntee is a freelance writer with bylines in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Vanity Fair, and others. He is the Theater Editor at the Brooklyn Rail and recently released his first short film, “Lindsay Lindsey Lyndsey.”


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