nytheatre.com review by J. Scott Reynolds
March 2, 2012
Fate is treated skeptically in An Iliad, but for anyone who has followed the live performance career of Denis O’Hare, his presence on an empty stage at New York Theatre Workshop may feel like an appointment with destiny. The scene-stealing gusto he has brought to elevator panic attacks and monologues about baseball have bolstered productions almost too ably, leaving the sense of a talent underserved by quirky supporting roles. An Iliad, a one-man piece co-created by O’Hare with director Lisa Peterson, provides an ample arena for his rock-splitting vocal prowess and seemingly bottomless emotional reserves. Its operatic demands require him to trade off every other performance with Stephen Spinella, who is uniformly excellent if not quite the force of nature encountered in O’Hare. With the stage stripped of everything but a mottled custodial sink, the show rests squarely on O’Hare’s or Spinella’s shoulders for 100 uninterrupted minutes. In Spinella’s hands, the effect is consistently absorbing; in O’Hare’s, the actor’s unbridled commitment is awe-inspiring.
An Iliad is of course adapted from “The” Iliad, Homer’s epic account of the battle of Troy. It is recounted by a character called The Poet, who, clad in a weather-beaten overcoat and lugging a battered suitcase, is ostensibly one of the “traveling bards” said to have brought Homer to the masses. To tell his story, The Poet relies on a combination of memorized passages and extemporized commentary. He refers to the destruction of Troy as an event that happened “a hundred years ago,” but moves freely between eras, mentioning the success of his “song” in Babylon one moment and the experience of being cut off by another car the next. The expediency of this chronological liberty is framed powerfully in the play’s opening moments. As the lights come up, we find The Poet in a trance-like state, uttering Homeric Greek hexameters in an incantation that swells to spine-chilling menace, then halts abruptly as he sheepishly explains that he’s forgotten himself. “Every time I sing this song,” he says, “I hope it’s the last time.” It becomes clear that The Poet embodies a thinking person’s response to The Iliad in the wake of history: Entranced by its terrible beauty, uneasy with its implications of a humanity trapped in violent cycles.
Abiding by the limits of an endurable evening’s performance, The Poet’s recounting culls the essentials of Homer’s plot. It begins with the falling out of Achilles with Agamemnon, king and war chief of the Greeks, who have come to Troy to avenge the seduction of Helen by the Trojan Paris; continues with the entry of Paris’ sober brother, Hector, into the war; heats up with the return of Achilles’ soul-mate, Patroclus, to battle in Achilles’ armor, only to die at the hands of Hector; peaks with Achilles’ return to battle to avenge Patroclus, and his slaying of Hector; then ends with Hector’s father, Priam, persuading Achilles to cease vengeful desecration of his son’s body and turn it over for burial. The Poet’s narration of these events quotes liberally from Robert Fagles’s English translation, but is peppered with colloquial skepticism. He compares the ninth year of the Greeks’ siege to waiting in line twenty minutes at the supermarket, seeing a shorter line, and not taking it, “cuz otherwise I’ve wasted my time.” When Hector refuses in majestic verse the entreaties of his wife Andromache to not go into battle, making recourse to “fate” (“No man alive has ever escaped it.”), The Poet juxtaposes it with a prosaic, seemingly ad-libbed exchange:
Andromache: “Why can’t you draw your army up by that fig tree down there, where the gate is weakest—you know they’ve attacked us three times on that very spot where the gate is low.”
Hector: “But that would make me look like a coward.”
As twittered by Spinella/O’Hare against Fagles’s stately lines, the interpolation is humorous, and admits here and elsewhere in An Iliad a 21st century dialogue that continually calls into question the concept of inevitability.
In one particularly powerful instance, The Poet introduces Patroclus’ overzealous return to battle by comparing his ferocity to an avoidable bout of road rage:
The guy in front of you who cuts you off, you could ram him with your car, you don’t care about the result—just ram him! And you could see the charred metal and you could see the smoking thing and you could see the air bag and you hope the air bag smothers him.
Voiced by O’Hare, this initially even-toned observation builds into one of his patented vocal eruptions, only this time as a distinctly non-comedic, unsettling roar followed by jagged snippets of Homer’s martial imagery, each accompanied by a lithe, predator-like swipe at the air or pounce on a table (the one identifiable set piece), climaxing with a guttural cry of “AND IT FEELS GOOD!!!” The moment is riveting, a portrait of anger spiraling to horrifying extremity.
Creators O’Hare and Peterson are aware of other powerful elements at work in Homer. The lengthy catalogues of soldier names, lineages, and cities of birth that are often left out of textbook abridgments, and that would seem obvious candidates for cutting in an hour-and-a-half theater piece, are partly left in. The Poet begins a recitation of one such list (“Thespia and Gray-uh, the dancing rings of My-ka-less-us . . . “), giving extra emphasis to metrical stresses, demonstrating these lines’ incantatory power and the immensity they convey. He interrupts himself, acknowledging to the audience that “you don’t know any of these places.” He then delivers a lengthy series of U.S. place-names and brief descriptions, preceded by the repeating phrase “soldiers from . . . “, and in a minute or so, leaves the audience with an oddly soothing impression of humanity in its vastness, and the human capital that underlies any conflict. The device is used to similar effect in a later naming of nearly every war in recorded history. And in recounting Hector’s burial and the momentary cessation of fighting, a few lines of Greek hexameter are again recited, only this time with a decided calming effect.
Other aspects of Homer are given shorter shrift; the uniquely human capacity for nobility under duress, for example. But the piece overall is a rare success in combining Brechtian inquiry with heartfelt homage. For anyone fortunate enough to see it, it is also one of the most visceral theatrical experiences currently on offer.