Visiting Insurgent Theater finds contemporary political relevance in the story of Ulysses' crew and the Sirens. | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Visiting Insurgent Theater finds contemporary political relevance in the story of Ulysses' crew and the Sirens. 

click to enlarge Captive audience: Ulysses' Crewmen - AMY TURK
  • Amy Turk
  • Captive audience: Ulysses' Crewmen

As they sail past the Sirens, Odysseus' crewmen tie their captain to the mast, plug their ears with wax and take control of the ship.

The scene from the Odyssey looks like a mutiny: The sailors reverse the hierarchy, subjugating Odysseus and seizing leadership. But really, it is the captain himself who wills the mutiny into being. Odysseus orchestrates his restraint so that he alone can hear the Sirens' song, yet not fall victim to their temptations.

Meanwhile, though the crew has plenty to rebel against -- Odysseus has led them from one reckless pit-stop to another -- this episode preaches obedience, even if the reward is fleeting false power.

This lesson worries Ben Turk, the playwright, actor and political activist behind Philadelphia-based Insurgent Theater company and the minimalist play Ulysses' Crewmen. Turk studied the politics of the Odyssey in a college course, and wasn't happy with what he found: The story instructs that to maintain order, "You have to restrain your freedom," Turk says.

While Homer may be long gone, Turk sees his lesson influencing current sociopolitical culture. Ulysses' Crewmen confronts political obedience through the story of a U.S. trade delegate taken hostage by a terrorist. As this modern-day Odysseus (played by Turk) sits bound and gagged, the militant dissenter (Kate Pleuss) commands the stage, attacking, abusing and confronting her leader with the realities and flawed logic of the capitalist political and economic system he supports. 

Yet abrasive as she may be, the dissenter's purpose is not to offer an answer, but to illuminate alternatives. "It's about empire and globalization and capitalism in general; it presents them and discusses ways of attacking them, with anti-capitalism as a given," Turk explains. The play "debunks non-violent resistance" as well as "extreme terrorism," he says. "It takes that apart and looks at the ways in which that fails."

After the play, Turk and castmate Pleuss make time for audience discussion. "We get a lot of really good critical response  -- we've had hour-long discussions," Turk says, though he admits reaction can be mixed, depending on the open-mindedness of the crowd.

In its review of the play, Express Milwaukee said, "The issues raised in Ulysses' Crewmen are messy and complicated. As a result, the play itself feels messy and complicated -- a drama animated by a dark brutality." Baltimore City Paper said: "If you like your theater heavy on message and light on conventional story telling, Ulysses' Crewmen is for you."

Insurgent Theater performs for a range of audiences in a myriad of spaces, from dive bars to bookstores -- even last year's performances of Ulysses' Crewmen on the lawn of Carnegie Mellon University, during the G20 summit. On Feb. 10, Turk and Pleus return, this time to Garfield Artworks.

With only two cast members, a set consisting of a chair, and a play that strives to create claustrophobia and tension, Insurgent Theater is highly flexible. But to Turk, running a play "out of a stationwagon" only bolsters his message: With no bigwigs to report to, Insurgent Theater's revolution is daring, critical and totally DIY.


Ulysses' Crewmen 8 p.m. Wed., Feb. 10. Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield. $5. 412-361-2262 or



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