There have been many, many plays about Homer’s Iliad and about the Trojan War in general. In the last few years alone, we’ve had The Salt Plays Part One: In the Wound at Shotgun Players and War Music at American Conservatory Theater. And that’s not even getting into the plays dealing with the aftermath of the war: recently we’ve had Odyssey plays from Shotgun, Central Works, and We Players, The Trojan Women at Aurora, and an upcoming Elektra at ACT. That’s partly a testimony to the timeless resonance of the stories the Greeks told in the first place, and it’s certainly only the tip of the iceberg as classical adaptations go (we’ve also seen plenty of Medeas, Oedipi and Phaedras), but it also attests to the human need in times of war to try to explore what drives people throughout history to strive to slaughter each other en masse.
That seems to be very much the point of An Iliad, a one-man show very loosely adapted by director Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare from Robert Fagles’s translation of The Iliad. The play debuted in Seattle in 2010, had its off-Broadway premiere earlier this year, and comes to Berkeley Rep in a coproduction with La Jolla Playhouse. It’s also played in Princeton, Chicago, and New Jersey, and that’s only appropriate, because the storyteller of the play has also been traveling from city to city to city, telling the same old tale that he wishes desperately he could stop. “Every time I sing this song, I hope it is the last time,” he says.
It’s clear that he’s been telling this story for a long time—thousands and thousands of years, in fact. “You know where it went down really well?” he says. “Gaul.” He also implies several times that he was an eyewitness to the events of the Trojan War. I don’t think he’s supposed to be Homer—or if he is, the creators of this show have dispensed with the traditional idea of the author of The Iliad being blind. This storyteller’s frame of reference is primarily visual; he’s always telling us that he wishes we could see the scene he’s describing. And this isn’t just something he says. It’s vitally important to him that we visualize the horrific sights he’s seen. “Do you see?” he says often and with urgency.
The story he’s telling is essentially that of The Iliad—that is to say, not the whole Trojan War, but the saga of the snit of Achilles, from his falling-out with Agamemnon and refusal to fight any more forever to the death of his bosom buddy Patroclus and his bloody vengeance on the Trojan warrior Hector who killed his friend. Achilles’ own death, the Trojan Horse, and the destruction of Troy all happen after this tale, and the storyteller touches on them only glancingly, as the part of the story he refuses to tell because it’s too much to bear.
Rachel Hauck transforms Berkeley Rep’s intimate Thrust Stage into what appears to be the interior of a warehouse—or, judging from the many stage lights sitting against one wall, a cavernously empty backstage with an immense sliding door in back. It opens with a thunderous clattering noise from sound designer Mark Bennett, who also composed the music, and bright light pouring in from “outside.” “You know, in the old days we would be in a tavern,” the storyteller says. “It was so much easier to talk about these horrors in a bar.” Fortunately, the suitcase the man carries comes equipped with a bottle of booze and a glass, and seemingly nothing else.
An old man in a trenchcoat (costume by Marina Draghici), the poet is masterfully embodied by Henry Woronicz, bone-weary and deeply haunted at the story he’s forced to tell, having to stop from time to time to collect himself and drink. But he also performs the story with great energy, telling it pretty much nonstop for 100 minutes without intermission—lingering over the details with relish and beautifully capturing the myriad characters in his story, from proud Achilles to greedy Agamemnon to frail Priam, king of Troy. His women are also well-drawn: the reflexively seductive Helen and especially Hector’s wife Andromache, in her concern for his safety and fury at his folly. The design elements accentuate the tale compellingly in Peterson’s staging, particularly the way the bright footlights make his shadow tower behind him as he declaims as Achilles.
His language goes back and forth between sweeping poetry and down-to-earth vernacular, which is often funny simply because of the cognitive dissonance of hearing someone talk about Helen of Troy like a trampy neighbor. He also often translates things into modern terms, cataloging where all the Greek ships were from with the analogy of American cities, or talking about all the piled-up bodies on the front as if they were local boys that we knew. He’s not a man out of time, just one who’s lived a long, long time. At one point he even paraphrases John Kerry. “Oh, that’s right, you don’t know any of these places,” he says amid his litany of the ships. “These names mean something to me, and I knew every one of these boys.” But it was long, long ago—he sometimes forgets the details, grasping for the name of somebody and then waving dismissively. And he plays favorites; talking about Paris, who effectively started the whole war by stealing Helen from her husband, he says, “But he’s not interesting! Not interesting to me. Anymore.” His brother Hector, on the other hand, he describes with palpable admiration, saying he may have been full of hubris but he was still a swell guy.
I call it a solo show, but there is in fact another performer, if not a speaking one. Brian Ellingsen arrives late, walking in with his bicycle, and takes his place on a balcony with a stand-up bass that he bows furiously with the rhythms of the story, at one point getting so caught up in an account of a killing frenzy that he starts howling as he plays. The poet is grateful for his presence, having previously complained of having to sing this song alone.
More than anything, An Iliad is especially eloquent on the subject of war. The poet’s descriptions of the carnage of the battlefield is visceral, and it’s sad and touching as he recounts what goes through the soldiers’ minds as they fight and as they wait for a death they know is imminent. In one particularly haunting and wearying passage, he soberly rattles off a long chronological list of wars over the millennia to the present day. Because this is as much a story of our time, and our fathers’ time, and our fathers’ fathers’ time, as it is of three thousand years ago. That’s what makes it so gripping, and that’s also what makes it unbearable.
Show #95 of 2012, attended October 17.