Olsen’s Odyssey a unique voyage

Lovers of pure theatre are in for another extraordinary experience when actor and writer Olivia Olsen brings a new one-woman production to the Sunshine Coast on Sunday, Jan. 13. 

Olsen will perform a work entitled Penelope from the Odyssey: The Story Through Her Eyes. Penelope’s tale is more than 4,000 years old, so deep in the past that the lines between history and mythology have blurred. As we know the story today, Penelope was the wife of Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman mythology), who was off fighting the Trojan War for so many years that Penelope had to fend off and outwit many suitors, and thus became identified forever as a paragon of marital fidelity. When Odysseus finally did return, Penelope suspected he was yet another clever would-be seducer in disguise, so she had to create a test that only he could pass. 

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It’s a story brimming with dramatic potential, and Olsen, by many accounts, is an actor who can carry it off. Those who attended her March 2018 performance of Parzival at the Sunshine Coast Botanical Garden’s pavilion say she is a story-telling marvel. 

“I’ve never seen an actor like that,” said Elizabeth McNeill, who, as a volunteer, helped produce the Parzival production. “I’ve never been in a performance of any kind where my mind did not wander at least a little bit. It didn’t at all watching that play. To me, that’s extraordinary. And she acted all the different parts herself.” 

Olsen is on the Sunshine Coast a few times a year to visit her mother, Dorothy Olsen, who is a local resident. Olivia Olsen, who grew up in Vancouver, flew in this week from the U.K., where she teaches voice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and at the International School of Storytelling Sussex. She also has an occasional teaching role at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management. 

Parzival and Penelope are just the latest in Olsen’s minimal-staging, multi-role, one-actor projects. In the full-length solo play The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien, Olsen played all 22 characters in productions mounted in Toronto, Vancouver, Buffalo New York, Seattle and various U.K. venues. 

In London in November this year, Olsen will appear in a play she’s written called Akhmatova, the pen name of Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, who struggled to express her truth-to-power voice while a poet in Stalinist Russia. 

Olsen’s take on Penelope remains to be seen. She was not available for an interview from the U.K., but did say in an email exchange with Coast Reporter that “missing parts in The Odyssey story connected to Penelope’s life are my own imagination and woven in is a theme I pursue about war and justice.” 

The Jan. 13 performance at the botanical garden is already sold out. One hopes her next local production will be at a larger venue where more of us can enjoy this unique talent.

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