Already in the title a disarming modesty is in place. It’s intimate: an Iliad, this Iliad. Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare—the duo who adapted the twenty-four-book epic poem “The Iliad” into the ninety-five-minute one-man show “An Iliad”—aren’t interested in contending with Homer for the definite article. The drama of this performance, directed by Court Theatre’s Charles Newell, doesn’t derive from the struggle between the Trojans and the Greeks, or even from the rage of Achilles, but from the anxiety of one man who, having represented the bloodshed, the waste, and the tragedy of the Trojan War thousands of times across thousands of years, finds himself straining to make the ancient story present to us—and to himself—again.
The Poet, played by Timothy Edward Kane, is tired, dirty, and alone. His relation to his tale is almost the opposite of Kane’s, who returns to “An Iliad” triumphantly after winning the Jeff Award for Best Solo Performance for the show’s 2011 run. But when the Poet asks the muses to sing, he is plaintive, as though already certain of refusal. He has been singing this song so long that he’s begun to forget some of the details—places, names of secondary or tertiary figures—and become bored with the others. Before beginning in earnest he tells us, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”
But first he needs his audience to see the “waste,” to see that the bodies scattered across the pages of “The Iliad” are “not just bodies,” but former sons and husbands, if not heroes. And he’s singing not just to any audience, but to this audience. Though the Poet speaks in many voices, he’s always speaking to us, and he’s willing to sacrifice artful expression to make his point. “What drove them to fight with such fury?” he asks. “Oh, the gods of course. Um, pride, honor, jealousy. Aphrodite, some game or other, an apple, Helen being more beautiful than somebody—it doesn’t matter. The point is, Helen’s been stolen, and the Greeks have to get her back. There’s always something, isn’t there?” Later, in a compellingly frantic sequence, the Poet breaks off listing the names of all the hometowns of the Greek soldiers, forgoing the obvious pleasure he gets from recalling them. “That’s right, you don’t know any of these places,” he says. He pauses, waiting for the right words: “The point is, on all these ships are boys, boys from every small town in, say, Ohio.”
In the script of “An Iliad,” the original Greek is set alongside direct excerpts from the energetic Fagles translation and the modern vernacular added by Peterson and O’Hare. The pair composed the play, according to Newell, by first videotaping and transcribing O’Hare’s spontaneous riffs on the text. The results include some inspired analogues to the similes employed in the original, which often elicit comparisons between actions of epic proportions and more common, domestic events. Thus the Greeks’ refusal to end the war is equated with an irate supermarketgoer’s determination to stick to the line she’s been in for twenty minutes, even if the other lines are moving faster, and the Poet evokes the peaceful everyday life of Troy by imagining its citizens hosting a community forum to discuss what to do about a dying fig tree. At their best, these insertions belittle the lofty ideals that tend to glorify violence (courage, honor, nationalism) in favor of the simple pleasures of an everyday peace.
But these abrupt shifts in tone also occasionally seemed to undercut crucial points in the performance. While describing Andromache’s rising sense of anticipation and dread in the moments before she sights Hector’s dead body from the walls of Troy (Achilles has just killed him, and is about to begin dragging his corpse around the city with his chariot), the Poet paraphrases her thoughts in modern diction: “He should have called by now.” Despite Kane’s soft, melancholy delivery, the lines still smack of an odd joke, as does the Poet’s comment regarding Andromache’s subsequent tirade, directed at Hector’s dead body: “You know what she’s really saying? She’s saying, ‘I told you so.’ ”
The pull of pride, of rage, of violence that is Hector’s downfall is acknowledged by “An Iliad” but remains relatively unexplored. Rather than any feature of the script, it’s the seeming spontaneity with which Kane allows fury to take hold of him wherein lies the interest of this performance’s treatment of war. There’s a certain mad ecstasy with which he announces “This is our guy,” upon introducing Achilles, describing him as skilled in the “art of war” (to allow that there is such a thing seems out of keeping with a later all-out condemnation of violence, expressed in his frenzied catalogue of every major conflict from Troy to Syria). The sense is that, despite the attempt to craft a wholly anti-war play, some of the ambivalence of “The Iliad” lingers, unacknowledged.
“An Iliad” is more a reading of its source than a replica. The Poet says, for instance, as if it were well established, that Achilles has come to love his “prize,” the young girl Briseis, whose appropriation by Agamemnon sparks his first rage. The extent to which he actually cares about Briseis is, however, left ambiguous by the original poet. The Poet also becomes a little prescriptive at times, as when he relates the scene in which Priam comes to beg for his son’s body back. He reads the scene for us, not to us. “Achilles, who is addicted to rage, this fighting man, feels the rage welling up and he just makes it disappear,” he says.
Still, the over-explicating is explicable in a performance so colored by authorial anxiety. More than that most famous of opening words, the guttural “Rage,” which does make several appearances, the final line, the Poet’s softly spoken and almost needy “Do you see?” is “An Iliad’s” refrain. The narrative precision, the fluency of the original, is exchanged for a desperate urgency; the poetics of Homer’s language are replaced by the poetry of Kane’s strict control of his own body and tone. The man has a presence, worthy of any of the Greek heroes he ventriloquizes, and suffused with rage, weariness, but most of all, a desperate need to be understood. The urgency of his sense of his duty to communicate can’t but remind us of our own duties: to understand, to make ourselves understood. This Iliad, Kane’s Iliad, reflects the fact that it’s often in the moments when we need words most that they fail us. Or, maybe, we fail them.