‘An Iliad’ casts a long shadow
By Michael H. Margolin
“An Iliad,” in a version by actor Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, takes Homer’s classic, tragic tale and transports its retelling to somewhere in the modern world. Its single character named, simply, The Poet, comes onstage to retell the story of the Trojan War, but with the advantage of seeing the distant past through modern eyes.
As the audience files in, the curtainless Performance Network stage speaks of rubble and ruin – on either side of the stage apron, piles of stone and crumbled cement. Oddly, though, there are stacks of LPs amidst the rubble. The eye is drawn to the middle of the stage, where – on an elevated platform – a round, crosshatched portal overlooks a room. Somewhere underground, perhaps? A bomb shelter?
The poet enters through the crosshatched covering. He wears a long coat and fedora, pants and shirt like a workman or a college teacher or an “everyman.” Even the Narrator in “Our Town” comes to mind.
The Poet is portrayed by John Manfredi, and at first he has a jocular presence, inviting us in to hear, again, the tale that is so rooted in the Western world that the names Helen of Troy, Achilles, the Trojan Horse are like our own memories.
“Helen has been stolen and the Greeks gotta get her back,” says The Poet, and with slight sarcasm, adds, “It’s always something.” The audience laughs. We will pay for that laugh as the tale goes deeper. Meanwhile he does a little Zorba dance and speaks/sings in modern Greek.
The Poet cranks up a machine on a red, child’s wagon which generates power, giving light; some of the lights along the front of the stage cast his magnified shadow on the rear wall, or, with his fingers splayed in front of his face, a disfiguring mask. It also powers the phonograph nearby on which he plays those ubiquitous LPs. His first selection is Wagner, “The Ride of the Valkyries.”
Fasten your seat belts we are in for a bumpy ride.
Director Tim Rhoze, set, props and costume designer, Monika Essen, lighting and sound designer Andrew J. Hungerford have created a post-apocalypse world in which the retelling of the old tale takes on new meaning. (The text calls for an unadorned stage; the Performance Network team has created this setting with fertile, brilliant imagination.)
The Poet tells of the Greek warriors and suddenly is talking about American warriors from small towns who go to war on ships. These time shifts and epochal events – the Trojan wars and modern wars – slip and slide together. As Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and when The Poet turns a lamp toward the audience, the chill of history freezes us in that pale, yellow light. Who causes war? Whose god claims victory?
As the play progresses, the story of Achilles’ lover Patroclus’ death, Hector’s death and his father, King Priam, seeking his body is interlarded with lists of modern wars. The Poet’s thundering anger is fever pitched as he pronounces each travesty of man against man – “the first Crusade…the Children’s Crusade…Vietnam…Bosnia…” – a litany of killing fields as he slams LPs on the floor, the walls, each smack down a visceral punch.
The script is poetic and the language is stunningly good – the translation is by Robert Fagles – and we are lucky to have it here. That it is presented in one of the most telling production designs one is likely to see in many seasons is a plus. (Even the smallest detail, such as the sound made by the generator as The Poet winds it up, is perfect.)
In the last analysis, though, the actor who plays the roles of men and gods, who brings superbly controlled intensity to the words and the movements, owns the show. John Manfredi is not likely to be bested in the 2013-14 season.
“An Iliad” is a major event in Michigan theater this season, and, perhaps, for many seasons to come.