By Shelley A. Sackett
“An Iliad,” the brilliant play by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare in a lamentably short run at Emerson Paramount Center, is one phenomenal piece of theater. In a mere 100 minutes, on a simple stage with no props or costume changes, the virtuoso Denis O’Hare (with the help of bassist Eleonore Oppenheim) magically creates the story behind Homer’s epic poem about the tragic Trojan War. This is no ordinary dramatic experience. It is a magic carpet ride into the deepest power and charm that theater can offer. No wonder the painted muses above the magnificently renovated stage are all smiles. They know this audience is in for a one-of-a kind experience that will resonate long after their thunderous standing ovation finally fades.
As the house lights slowly dim, a near-deafening clang arises from a stage stacked with chairs. One beacon illuminates the narrator, clad in a Sam Spade-like trench coat and hat and carrying a suitcase. It’s as if he emerges from the belly of some post-apocalyptic landscape. He approaches the audience and with an intimacy and rapport that marks the entire production, he speaks directly to them. With a sorrowful weariness he says, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.” He has been singing this same story for millennia: in Mycenae, in Babylon, in Gaul and now, in 21st century Boston. “It’s a good story,” he admits. That is the only understatement of the entire script. Peterson and O’Hare have written a firecracker version (hence, “An Iliad”) of Homer’s “Iliad” based on Robert Fagles’ renowned translation about the bloody story of the war between the Confederation of Greeks and Troy (located in Asia Minor or current Turkey).
In a nutshell, it all started when the Trojans stole Helen and ends with the Greeks getting her back (with a little help from that famed Trojan Horse). Along the way, we witness swords clattering, gods and goddesses interfering for malice and amusement, and several battles to the death. We also learn a lot of history and mythology (and, for the trained ear, a bit of classical Greek poetry). We meet Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, who has abducted Chryseis, the daughter of one of Apollo’s Trojan priests, and refuses to give her back. Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, tries to no avail to persuade Agamemnon of his folly. Not until Apollo punishes the Greek armies with plagues does he finally relent and give her up. But no sooner is Apollo’s curse lifted than Agamemnon decides he deserves to be compensated for his sacrifice. That compensation is in the form of stealing Achilles’ concubine, a captured princess Achilles considers to be his bride.
Understandably, Achilles responds with epic rage and refuses to fight for Agamemnon and the Greek confederation. Without him, Agamemnon’s army is no match for the Trojans and their Achilles analog, Hector. After nine years of fruitless fighting, the Greeks are depressed and exhausted. “They’ve forgotten why they’re fighting. They just want to go home,” our narrator says. He pauses and solemnly faces the audience. “How do you know when it’s over?” he asks in a whisper.
The artistic depth and muscle of “An Iliad” lies in the way it connects ancient past to the political and linguistic vernacular of today. In a chatty, informal, almost stand-up-comic tone, the narrator compares the inability of the Greeks to give up and seek a truce to the exasperation and irrational stubbornness of someone who has waited for over 20 minutes in a supermarket line. “Do you switch lines now? No, goddam it, I’ve been here for 20 minutes, I’m gonna wait in this line. I’m not leaving ‘cause otherwise I’ve wasted my time,” the narrator says in a delivery reminiscent of the great Robin Williams, and suddenly the ancient Greek’s emotional dilemma is crystal clear.
Oppenheim’s music (how does she get all those sounds from a stand-up bass?) and Zeilinski’s dazzling lighting add enormous complexity and texture to the production as O’Hare stalks the bare stage, narrating the story, embodying his characters and time-traveling to the present to address his contemporary peers directly. He physically communicates the violence of war and the destruction it wreaks on the human body and psyche, embodying both Hector and Achilles in the play’s most wrenching scenes. With a bend of his nimble legs or a tilt of his head into a lone spotlight, he is magically transformed from Hector into his wife, Androcmache, in a tender scene where he credibly personifies and simultaneously embodies both.
The night belongs to this remarkably gifted and nimble actor, and those who miss it in Boston must make a New Year’s resolution to jump on a plane and catch its traveling production somewhere. It really is that good. For tickets and information, go to: https://artsemerson.org
‘An Iliad’ – Written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare; Directed by Lisa Peterson; Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Marina Draghici; Lighting Design by Scott Zeilinski; Composer/Sound Design by Mark Bennett; Produced by Arts Emerson and Homer’s Coat in association with Octopus Theatricals at Emerson Paramount Center through November 24.