An Iliad Onstage
I'm not so good with observances, and when Veterans' Day came round last month, I felt only the most fleeting sort of gratitude or even acknowledgment. Such feelings shimmer and vanish amid daily demands and the related distractions that crowd the collective attention span, such as reports of a spike in weddings on the same day this year, 11/11/11. Before you know it, the day and its intended reflection have passed you by, or you it. So it was splendid timing to attend An Iliad, a one-man show at the University of Chicago's Court Theatre. Rarely has the subject of war—or, better, what the English poet Wilfred Owen called "war and the pity of war"—been so sparely yet effectively staged.
In an intense performance running less than ninety minutes and without intermission, Timothy Edward Kane is riveting and endlessly energetic as The Poet, a modern storyteller or maybe one who's traveled three thousand years to speak to us, in Hyde Park in 2011. He speaks in order not to forget. Kane gives fresh, impassioned voice to the main actions of the Iliad, Homer's ancient poem about the Greek siege of Troy. He first appears hopping down from a backstage ladder, and resembles a Libyan freedom fighter, or, as the director puts it in the playbill's "Design Notebook," "an embedded journalist in the Trojan War": combat boots, soiled trench coat under which is a field jacket, a scarf—linen and cotton reflecting a desert climate. Taking a hasty drink from his canteen, and soon inspired by the Muse, The Poet proceeds to tell, yet once more, the story that is his to carry and share.
Kane stood downstage and recited Homer's ancient Greek lines (an expert on Homeric dialect was consulted), and then began to search for the best ways to help a modern audience appreciate the story's characters and dimensions. His explicit struggle— "um, um, um," eyes darting, as he sought the right word or analogy—was one of the most engaging things about Kane's character. We could powerfully sense, in his woodpecking hand gestures and verbal stumbling, the difficulty in conveying with a proper depth of feeling Homer's great poem. But once started, Kane did not stop speaking, however much he wrestled with his task, until the play had concluded. Receiving a standing ovation, he ran from the stage up the aisle through the audience.
The Brooklyn actor and writer Denis O'Hare and director Lisa Peterson adapted An Iliad freely from Robert Fagles' translation of the original, and the pointed localizing or modernizing moments featured in their version reflect their collaborative process. The pair would read aloud Fagles' text, and Peterson recorded O'Hare's frequent digressions in between passages, as he explained or elaborated or commented upon the scene or speech. This process could have had a nightmare outcome, making longer an already sprawling poem of fifteen thousand lines, but instead these surprising additions of The Poet accent a highly streamlined narrative. (Homer, too, was known for this skill: the action of the Iliad takes place during a short span near the end of the ten-year war, and Aristotle praised the epic poet for showing a dramatist's sense of a unified action.)
Thus, An Iliad is not only compressed, impactful theater at its best, but also an incitement to sympathy, sadness, and ultimately a better understanding of war (all wars), the boys involved in it, and the mixed effects upon those who experience it. War can provide moments of glory, as this stage version is honest enough to show us, and there is humor in the show—including The Poet's surprisingly comic turns as Paris and Helen—but mostly what comes through is the bitter taste of great loss—lost youth, lost years, lost life. We hear, as if it were recent news and not a millennia-old tale, about Achilles' rage, his and Agamemnon's dissension, the noble Hector, Achilles' doomed friend Patroclus and his rage against the advancing Trojans, Achilles' avenging of his dead friend by killing Hector and raging against his corpse, and finally, Hector's grieving father, the Trojan king Priam, and his bold mission to visit his son's killer and retrieve the mutilated body for burial.
An Iliad's set, as the stage manager and dramaturg explained at a talkback following the performance I attended, is meant to suggest the war zones of both ancient Troy and the contemporary Middle East. The show's director, Charles Newell (also the Court's artistic director), first envisioned an empty swimming pool, but with visual suggestions of ancient spaces such as catacombs. Audiences find themselves in a great, dried-out, underground sewer, or a long-dilapidated ancient bath. The sloping concrete is reminiscent of Troy's ramparts, but for me it also evoked LA's tagged, concrete storm drains, featured in car chases in numberless films.