nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 13, 2011
A consortium of three indie theater companies—Handcart Ensemble, Verse Theater Manhattan, and WorkShop Theater Company; all well-known for their productions of classic drama—is presenting a revival of Jim Milton's Kings, which is adapted from Christopher Logue's book of the same title. Logue (as quoted in a helpful program note) says that his work is "not...a translation in the accepted sense of the word, but what I hoped would turn out to be a poem in English dependent upon whatever, through reading and through conversation, I could guess about a small part of The Iliad..."
So what we have here is a two-man play that tells part of the story of the Trojan War in vivid, contemporary verse. The part of the story recounted here happens near the end of the conflict, when Agamemnon, the Greek king and general, decides to steal one of the concubines awarded to his star fighter Achilles. Achilles, furious, asks his mother to convince Zeus to exact revenge on Agamemnon. (If you want to read some background on the story—and risk spoilers—check out this from SparkNotes.)
Milton has adapted and staged the play, using Logue's language, in a spare, minimalist style. Dana Watkins, a young, vigorous, and very watchable actor, plays most of the characters, starting with the aggrieved Achilles and including Zeus, Odysseus, Hector, and many others. J. Eric Cook portrays Agamemnon and a few others (Priam, Hera, Achilles's mom Thersites). Watkins uses different voices and physical characteristics to differentiate and bring his various roles to life. Cook is much less successful at this, and he's also less adept at speaking the verse. Because the two actors are so unevenly matched, the dynamic of the play suffers: I was always on Achilles's side here, and I'm not sure I'm supposed to be.
But Milton's approach to theatricalizing the text here is even more problematic in putting this classic story over for an audience. The staging is very static: the actors move around the small space some, but they seldom interact—Milton has them serve as narrators for each other's text more often than directly engaging in dialogue together—and their actions are quite limited. A few projections on a screen at the rear of the stage and a few lighting cues demarcate the sections of the tale, but overall there's a lack of variety in the stagecraft that makes the play feel less intense and exciting than the stirring plot deserves. (Heather Sparling's lighting is the only design credit in the program.)
Nevertheless, Watkins achieves some rousing moments, and an overall anti-war theme emerges rather clearly: all of the posing and posturing and supposed nobility of the warriors and the gods and goddesses is neatly cut down to size in Logue's incisive view of the classic tale.