An Iliad: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Truly the greatest story ever told.

Denis O'Hare's adaptation of Homer's epic poem bows at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

If war and conflict must be begrudgingly considered the natural condition of Mankind, then The Iliad of Homer, voiced and written some 2,800 years ago, remains the most profound exploration of these primal drives to domination and destruction. The act of combat has never been more piercingly described (not even by Tolstoy or Mailer, let alone Lone Survivor), nor its qualities of rage, savagery and comradeship more intensely conveyed. This OBIE and Lortel Award-winning stage adaptation by Tony-winning actor Denis O’Hare (American Horror Story, King Russell on True Blood and Judge Abernathy on The Good Wife) and director Lisa Peterson mightily condenses the epic to an intermission-less recital of a hectic, cherry-picked 100 minutes, yet still communicates its terrible vision of savagery and nobility, vivid action and insights into the masculine character of historic civilization without materially bowdlerizing its intrinsic power.

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The Poet’s Invocation boils down to a single poignantly empathetic line: "O Muses, do not leave me to tell this tale alone!" Indeed, this Bard takes elaborate, not entirely essential, pains to reassure the audience at the outset that this conceivably forbidding saga will be an accessible experience, cannily, even doggedly, courting comfort with contemporary references and self-disparaging folksiness. Nevertheless, the direct address quickly gets to its spellbinding business of relating how haughty Greek commander King Agamemnon, forced to surrender his captive Trojan mistress to forestall the vengeance of Apollo on his troops, decides in a fit of pique to seize Achilles’ adored concubine Briseis for himself, sending his preeminent warrior into a furious funk, refusing to engage in battle.

The Trojan champion Hector, a formidable fighter who would nevertheless prefer to be a peaceable keeper of horses, seizes this advantage to threaten the ships of the besieging Greeks, yet Achilles will not budge from his tent, as much for the honor of keeping his promise to himself than out of persistent grudge. He does allow his closest friend since childhood, Patroclus, whom he loves more deeply than a brother, to don his own armor and take the field in his place to rally the counterattack, thereby instigating an inevitably bloody skein of killing and revenge, accompanied by grief and even transcendent acts of pity, such as Achilles' touching, transformative surrender of Hector’s body to his mourning father, King Priam.

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Neither Homer nor O’Hare takes much interest in the ostensible cause of the war, the "abduction" of Helen, wife of Meneleus (brother to Agamemnon), by the handsome, cowardly Paris of Troy. (O’Hare has played Meneleus off-Broadway but declines to incarnate him here.) Instead, the adaptors repeatedly invoke the long history of human wars in the intervening millenia, conjuring up relevancies in the Greek and Trojan experience with parallels to American youth in the service of their State today. It's sufficiently true to the spirit (and rhythm) of the Homeric original that the anachronisms don’t grate but instead seem apt.

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O’Hare’s blunt, modest Poet meshes well with translator Robert Fagles' plainspoken language, which may lack the poetic brilliance of my own favorite, the inestimable Richmond Lattimore, yet still captures the pulse of a distinctive cadence of narration that is lyric if not assertively lyrical, interpolating evocative brief passages of the ancient Greek text that set the mood. Even the title emphasizes that the particular experience of the story does not profess to be "The Iliad" but only a singular version of it.

O'Hare makes much of the Poet’s reluctance to relate this story yet another time, as if the burden of bearing witness has grown too draining to endure, and one can well believe it from the frankly evident rigors of the performance. It may be an impressive feat, but O’Hare mostly eschews the virtuoso in favor of the most unpretentious feints at the truth of his material.

Providing both literal and symbolic counterpoint, Brian Ellingsen plays solo bass as eloquently as O'Hare speaks, allowing supple interplay that offers a dense grounding to support the storytelling. Accompanying himself with expressive percussion as well as the occasional howl of empathy, Ellingsen gives as integral a performance, making this far more than a one-man show. Sound, lighting and scenic design are similarly enhancing.

Venue: The Broad Stage, Santa Monica (through Feb. 2)

Cast: Denis O’Hare, Brian Ellingsen

Director: Lisa Peterson

Writers: Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, based on Homer’s Iliad, as translated by Robert Fagles

Composer & Sound Design: Mark Bennett

Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck

Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski

Costume Design: Marina Draghici

A Homer’s Coat Project