The confusion, in Laura Shamas’ world premiere, “Circular,” starts early on.
A mythological figure — a woman, whom we eventually realize is Circe, the goddess upon whose island Odysseus took temporary refuge on his long journey home to Ithaca in Homer’s “The Odyssey” — is kneeling and uttering an incantation when a warrior bursts in wielding a dagger.
She seems terrified. But why? Aren’t gods immortal?
Carla Pauli, as “C,” is low-key and natural — a nice, everyday sort of deity — but Ogie Zulueta, as “O,” is cartoonishly loud and overwrought, striking odd, exaggerated poses and continually slapping his hands together to underscore his excitability.
Thus the actors in this two-hander, directed for Alter Theater by artistic director Jeanette Harrison, seem to be, for the most part, in two separate plays.
“Circular” itself comprises two interwoven stories. In one, Odysseus initially begs Circe to unbewitch his crew, whom she’s transformed into oinking pigs (good sound effects throughout by Gerry Grosz), and soon enough he falls under her erotic spell — until she sends him off on a mission to Hades. (“The River Styx is not on my bucket list,” he protests, in one of the play’s infrequent attempts at humor.)
But is he supposed to be Odysseus during these scenes, or a modern-day soldier at war who’s broken the space-time barrier, or what?
In either case, the pair’s presumed sexual chemistry fails to register.
As the 90-minute drama continues, O becomes a commanding officer in Afghanistan who is especially fascinated by “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.” He counsels his crew, “A little Homer will get you home.”
He’s also consumed with guilt — for killing an innocent old lady and for leaving his wife and son behind for a military career.
And C, now in fatigues, is an army doctor with whom he strikes up a friendship, and then sends off into combat. (But are doctors normally sent into battle?)
In one scene, she’s a psychologist in a white coat and he’s her patient, wracked with PTSD. (There’s a vague hint that she’s dreaming this scenario.) Later, she herself suffers from extreme PTSD.
Conflating mythology and modern-day issues is a popular theatrical trope; mixing the long-running Trojan War with our own Middle East warfare is a great idea. And the theme of PTSD, especially as experienced by women at war, is a worthy one.
But confusion of characters, narrative and style can undermine a production’s effectiveness.
Presented by Alter Theater
Where: ACT Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 19, 8 p.m. June 20-22
Tickets: $15 to $49
Contact: (415) 454-2787, altertheater.org
Note: “Circular” continues at 8 p.m. June 28-29 and 2 p.m. June 30 at West Coast Arts Foundations’ West End Studio Theater, 1554 Fourth St., San Rafael.