Iliad: Book One

Aquila Theatre's physical theatre piece Iliad: Book One explores the nature of warfare from a number of perspectives. The story is from Homer, of course, by way of Stanley Lombardo's fluent, easy-on-the-ear, vivid, and contemporary translation: it takes place during the final year of the Trojan War, and tracks the lethal feud between Greek general/king Agamemnon and his bravest soldier, Achilles. Actors narrate and then sometimes act out (physically or in words or both) these events.

In a program note, director Peter Meineck sets up who these "actors" are: "dislocated soldiers and refugees thrust together in the storm of war, having to tell this story to simply keep alive." So there's a layer of storytelling on top of the story, accentuated not only by the shared narration but also by Desiree Sanchez's vocabulary of stylized movement and gesture and Meineck's simple, eloquent design—four boxes that are rearranged to become whatever setting is necessary, from a ship to a throne, to the highest peak of Mount Olympus; stark lighting and some fog and smoke effects; evocative music (composed by Anthony Cochrane). It feels like a ritual, one that maybe if we repeat enough times we can finally absorb a lesson from.

Why do men fight? Homer blames the whims of gods and men. Apollo gets ticked off about something and so the Greeks find themselves stranded and starving in Troy. Agamemnon is mad because he has to give up one of the slaves he took as booty from the siege of Troy (to appease Apollo), and so he steals Achilles's slave. Achilles's mother Thetis (a lesser deity) begs Zeus to interfere, and he does so, but not without risking the wrath of his perpetually suspicious wife Hera.

Yet, even as the twin curses of arbitrary anger and capricious fate play out in this tale, Meineck keeps us aware throughout of the brutality, the cost, the banal awfulness of war. His actors tell and re-tell this portion of the Iliad night after night, but there's a sense somehow that its inevitability ought to be questioned. As the great Greek dramatists do elsewhere in the story of the House of Atreus, an underlying question is posed here: can the cycle of bloodshed ever be broken?

Meineck's production is physically arresting and compelling. The cast, though, is somewhat uneven: Jay Painter is the clear standout, inhabiting a number of diverse characters (Chryses, Nestor, Zeus) with distinction and brio. Nathan Flower is a potent Agamemnon, but John Buxton's Achilles never gives off much of a spark; the play sags during his speeches, I'm afraid. In supporting roles are Jeffrey Golde, Natasha Piletich, and Vaishnavi Sharma.

This is the second New York production of Aquila's Iliad: Book One, and it makes a strong case for another statement that Meineck makes in his program note—that this is a story that was always meant to be acted rather than simply read. Aquila's visceral production style brings the story to life and makes it highly resonant more than two millennia after it was first told. Will other books of the Iliad follow?