New York Theatre Workshop’s raw space could be the envy of any nightclub owner or movie star-cum-restauranteur in the city. The company also happens to make fantastic use of it in its current production of An Iliad, directed by Lisa Petereson, leaving it unadorned, except for a few simple props such as table, chair, some stage lights, lined up like tin soldiers stage right, and an iron staircase stage left. The time is now, or perhaps it isn’t; perhaps there is no time.
Such is the mood when the play’s only character, the Poet, walks on stage. Don’t expect an ancient toga draped across his shoulder; he isn’t the glorious Homer, but someone vaguely like him. A weary traveler, with a bottle of strong stuff in his suitcase, and the gift of gab to chase away boredom. His background story is one of the goriest epics in the Western canon. Set during the 10-year siege of the ancient city of Troy by the Greeks, it tells of fearsome warriors, petty squabbles, and valorous slaughter. And then there are the gods, who interfere and sometimes switch sides.
The Poet starts by speaking in ancient Greek, reminisces about singing verses in the Gaul, then skips to present-day bars: “So much easier to talk about these horrors in a bar.” He’s a performer, in a tragic mask, but he also embodies a more modest persona: a present-day interpreter of ancient customs and rites. Denis O’Hare, in the title role, and Peterson have chosen to emphasize the original text’s wondrous energy and strangeness, by mixing its elements, in Robert Fagles’s translation, with contemporary passages that they themselves have scripted, as a result of improvisation. The end product is a meditation—a riffing, if you like—on The Iliad. The Poet emerges as a shaman. Considering the brutal material he must recite, his sense of urgency is astounding; I suspect because O’Hare and Peterson believe that the ancient epic has great currency today.
So why The Iliad? The short answer would be: It’s about the war. But imposing current-day political resonance on classical texts doesn’t itself make for good theater. Luckily, in the case of An Iliad, the play is mostly unmarred by didacticism. As a spectacle, it is rich and varied. With one actor playing all male and female parts, we must be quickly keyed in to the foreign world, teeming with characters and settings. This is achieved by O’Hare carefully differentiating his poses and gestures, modulating his voice, and occasionally by the changes in lighting.
The Poet’s attitude to his own material is dialogic: He catches himself striking poses. In one, he describes how Achilles throws his scepter to the ground, smashing it to pieces, but quickly corrects his fancy, “not really, but—Furious!” The Poet’s love for words makes him hyperbolic. We should not begrudge him; in O’Hare’s rendition there’s much to treasure. He delivers Paris, the loveable arch-villain who kidnapped beautiful Helen, and so is said to have caused the war, in the first place, as a reality show or pop-music celebrity: “Everyone always wants to hear more about Paris. ’Paris! Paris! Tell us more about Paris!’” the Poet comments testily, as if imitating hysterical fans. And yet, O’Hare and Peterson aren’t after mere parody. There’s plenty of jest in undercutting the grandeur of the original—but in the battle and the slaying scenes, the game turns murderously serious. O’Hare’s dramatic gifts are prodigious: He brilliantly portrays a soldier’s bravery and righteousness slipping into madness; he’s a victor, monstrously pumped on death, but also the victim, struck down, begging not for life but for a dignified death. The enjoyment lies in watching O’Hare slip on his dramatic personae, as if they were second skin, rarely missing a beat.
At times, the Poet’s words fail him; he’s left staring out helplessly into the audience. At other times, we might wish they did, as when he delivers a flawless litany of wars, from the ancient ones to today: “Iraq,” rings out the refrain, “Iraq…Iraq.” The Poet who lives too long, the play suggests, disavows hope.
A brief reprieve comes when Achilles, “addicted to rage—as so many of us are, really, when it comes right down to it…makes it disappear.” We are told that, on the night when slain soldier Hector was buried:
…the sentries guarding the walls of Troy slept, and all of the Trojan civilians slept, and all of the Trojan soldiers slept. And in the countryside, the farmers and the shepherds and the animals slept, and in the Greek ships the slaves and the oarsmen slept, and even, way up on Olympus, Zeus lay his head on Hera’s shoulder, and even the gods fell asleep…
All sleep, as equals; the night makes no distinctions between the Greeks and the Trojans. This seems to be the overriding sentiment for which An Iliad strives, pleading for both the victors and the vanquished to be remembered and honored, and for their essential humanity to be recognized. In the context of the national debate over the parochialism of the Americans’ concern for our wounded, our dead, An Iliad seems indeed like an essential viewing. It doesn’t achieve the perfect balance (the modern poet, after all, recites mainly the stories of American soldiers, our “boys”), but by choosing to work with the ancient text, it suggests a looking beyond the politics of today to the myth-making of tomorrow, when the anguish and terror may be expressed with greater, poetic distance. It reminds us to tally losses on both sides—because in this great Trojan War, we are all lost.
An Iliad runs through March 25 at New York Theatre Workshop.