Project Exiles: the return of a man called Ulysses

BATS Theatre, Wellington

08/02/2008 - 11/02/2008

NZ Fringe Festival 2008

Production Details

Project Exiles: the return of a man called Ulysses deals with the search for the sense of belonging.  It is both a revision of Homer’s classic "The Odyssey" and an exploration of the testimony of NZ immigrants.

Dörner is himself an immigrant from Chile, a willing exile searching to make home of a foreign land, sensitive to the torn senses of the uprooted.

Like Ulysses on his Odyssey, like his son who searches for him, immigrants to NZ are sailors in a quest, always finding and looking again, searching, looking to belong, to fit in, looking for the real self. 

Ulysses decides to go home, but home is not the same anymore.  "People are not a frozen image in a photograph…"

Following his popular production of "Antigone" in Fringe 2007, Dörner brings theatre that is:  "…intense, multi-layered… an absorbing hour from six totally committed actors, and a startling piece of performance writing."  The Guardian

BOOKINGS: tel. 04 802 4175 or

Ulysses - Div Collins
The Girl - Lana Sklenars
Telemachus - Samuel Gordon
The Lover - Tawanda Manyimo
Calypso - Peri Chapelle
Penelope - Jacqueline McKenzie

1 hr 10 mins, no interval

Terrific potential wasted

Review by Lynn Freeman 13th Feb 2008

Project Exiles: The return of a man called Ulysses is a terrific concept let down by presentation. 

The cast looks at one of the lesser considered aspects of migration – the fact that it’s almost impossible to return home after a long period away, because that home will have changed over time, just as the person who left will have changed. 

Choosing Ulysses to encapsulate that is brilliant.  He has been 20 years away from home after leaving his wife and son to fight a war, ends up on an island imprisoned by a woman who demands his love, tries to get home but is tortured because he’s lost his papers.  In the meantime his son has searched for his father using his only clue, an old photograph, and Ulysses’ wife has taken a lover.

The components are clever, but the potential is wasted. The cast is multi-cultural but this isn’t really explored, and the director, also the writer, Jaime Dorner, gives his actors only two styles of delivery – hysterical screaming or muttering under their breaths. Both are tiresome, especially the unrelenting overwrought yelling.

More subtlety would be so much more effective, and moving.  As it is, by the end of the play, when a particularly annoying character (who moves like Gerry from Boston Legal, most disconcerting) holds a gun to his head, you really wish he’d pull it.  That’s surely not what is wanted here.


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Moments of wonderful theatre

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 11th Feb 2008

Chilean immigrant Jaime Dörner (Antigone’s Death in Fringe 2007) has put together a fascinating play, Project Exiles, the return of a man called Ulysses – presumably from his own feelings and experiences as an immigrant – about belonging, fitting in and looking for yourself in a new environment while always conscious of where you have come from. 

Using the Ulysses story from Homer’s classic Ödyssey, Ulysses (Div Collins) has been away 20 years leaving his nerdish son Telemachus (Samuel Gordon) to grow up and cope with his formative years fatherless, befriending The Girl (Lana Sklenars) in order to help find himself, and of course sex. 

Wife and mother Penelope (Jacqueline McKenzie) never marries but does take a Lover (Tawanda Manyimo) while she waits for the return of her husband Ulysses. His journey home is eventful, not the least of which is his encounter with Calypso (Peri Chapelle), but on arriving home he finds things not as he imagined.

While the play’s many themes become almost too much, especially at the beginning, once the initial shouting of the cast subsides, the play begins to find its rhythm, and under the direction of the writer the cast each come into their own with moments of wonderful theatre – Samuel Gordon’s son Telemachus not wanting to confront the arrival of his father Ulysses is telling and heartfelt. 


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With more subtlety passion and effort could make for excellence

Review by Helen Sims 10th Feb 2008

As he did with last year’s Antigone’s Death writer/director Jaime Dörner takes a classical text as the basis for his theatrical exploration. This time the story of Ulysses (aka Homer’s Odysseus) is used as a base to concentrate on themes of exile, immigration and journey-quests. The characters and plot are roughly the same as the original, with selected episodes concentrated upon and the addition of a girlfriend for Telemachus. However the text is thoroughly modernised and several episodes are invented so as to examine the perspectives of the more marginalised characters of the myth (Calypso, Penelope and her lover).

The play begins with Telemachus (Samuel Gordon) encountering a girl (Lana Sklenars) on the verge of suicide as he is setting out on his quest to find his long absent father, Ulysses (Div Collins). It’s no wonder that Telemachus doesn’t really know what to do with a girl – Dad is the sex-slave captive of the fiery, B ‘n’ D style mistress Calypso (Peri Chapelle); Mum (Penelope played by Jacqueline McKenzie) has shacked up with a sexy new lover (Tawanda Manyimo). The desire and passionate violence of his parents’ relationships is contrasted with Telemachus’s awkwardness with the fractured girl. Telemacus becomes increasingly disillusioned with his quest, with the heroic figure of his father and the idealised figure of his mother and with love. After dealing with some extreme immigration officials, Ulysses finally makes it back home, to find he is an exile in his own land.

The play has an excellent, sharp black and white motif in the set design and costumes. The lighting design was stunning for a play that I assume had a limited budget. Much of it is provided by an over-head projector of the style found in class rooms around NZ. Dörner himself operates this, illuminating, framing and bisecting his characters. Particularly effective was its later use to write comments on the stage and the actors during the tense reunion of Ulysses and Penelope.

The script is complex and verbose (I wondered at times if a little too much?) The actors approach their roles with intensity and commitment. However, the script and the performances are ultimately let down by the number of times the actors resort to shouting to convey emotion. Shouting does far more to mask emotion than convey it – and it also alienates the audience and makes it difficult to comprehend what is being said. For a play that sought to establish connection, the shouting sadly severed it too many times. I wondered if Dörner would be wise to choose someone a little more neutral to direct or co-direct his next work.

I had a few problems with the politics of the play – it seemed to be in part a feminist re-working, but had (unconsciously?) taken an incredibly gendered concept for its centre – patria, root of “patriarchal” and explicitly defined as not “Motherland” as this is “too generous, too soft.” The position of the lover and the mistress seemed a little under developed too. However, no one could deny the passion and effort poured into this piece. Where the script does succeed more is in its post-modern meta-textual leanings. With a little more subtlety in the approach this would be an excellent short piece of theatre.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Focused intentions create compelling theatre

Review by John Smythe 09th Feb 2008

Forty one years ago Marshall McLuhan observed (in his seminal book The Medium is the Massage) that "youth … lives mythically and in depth." Manifestations back then included the pop-culture discovery of J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the plundering of Hamlet and the theories of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead for significant moments in the rock opera Hair, and the turning of Jesus Christ into a Superstar.  

Early works by Mâori playwrights Hone Kouka and Briar Grace-Smith have drawn on Nordic, Greek and Mâori mythology. Now Chilean exile/immigrant Jaime Dörner’s also reaches back to the Greeks as a means of exploring his immediate concerns.  

Last year’s Fringe production Antigone’s Death sought to use the Sophocles classic and Anouhil’s adaptation of it (written in response to the Nazi occupation of France) as a starting point for voicing "South American protest against recurrent political interference by the United States of America".

While that production had much to commend it, I felt it finally subverted itself with psychodrama indulgence, emotional over-statement, and high volume sound and voice that obliterated access to the more complex and interesting dimensions of human experience. I felt they were doing it for themselves, not us.

This year Dörner’s El Toro Productions takes the legend of Ulysses (a.k.a. Odysseus, of Homer’s Odyssey), and deviates from it, to explore contemporary states of exile, although it’s the classic nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep, sung by a homeless Girl (Lana Sklenars) on the verge of shooting herself, that first sets the tone.

Her saviour, with the promise of strawberries, is Telemachus (Samuel Gordon), now 21 and wanting to find his father Ulysses who went to war 20 years ago and has not been heard from since. ‘Every man has a war to fight’ is one of a number of recurring lines. But poor little Tel is pathetic and needy, not least in wanting to experience sex, which brings out a revitalising stroppiness in the Girl.

Ulysses (Div Collins) is now in the thrall – and dog-collar and chain – of Calypso (Peri Chapelle) who taunts him with her addiction to anonymous sex, yet when he is offered his freedom he doesn’t want to leave her. If this mere shadow of the mythical Ulysses ever had qualities of strength and leadership, let alone the capacity to commit random mass murder, they are absent now.

Meanwhile the abandoned wife Penelope (Jacqueline McKenzie), neurotic and embittered, has taken a physically attractive young Lover (Twanda Manyimo). Their scenes are volatile evocations of physical and emotional abuse and co-dependence.

Dörner’s aesthetics include an intelligent and perceptive post-modern text that mixes emotionally charged dramatised scenarios with poetic expressions of the theme, direct-address musings (e.g. about the meanings of words) and theatrical deconstruction:
ULYSSES:   I want to eat strawberries
ULYSSES:…Because it’s my line. I’m avoiding you now.

Throughout the performance Dörner also (as in Antigone’s Death) operates an overhead projector to frame and reframe the action, add texture to it, write comments on it … And this harsh light with its strong shadows is often the only lighting. At one stage Dörner takes the stage himself to subvert the expectation of a positive resolution.

When Ulysses finally makes it home there is no place for him. The world and its people have moved on, albeit to self-destructive places because all, in their own ways, are exiles. The moral (my take on it, anyway) is that longing for the past is not conducive to belonging in the present.

This 65 minutes of theatre is made compelling by a cast and director whose intentions are firmly focussed. They do still too often resort to shouting in favour of more interesting expressions of human emotions and behaviour. But this time round there is definitely a feeling that we are invited.


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