Encore Michigan

Actress stuns in anti-war production at Hope Summer Rep

Review July 24, 2018 Bridgette Redman

HOLLAND, Mich.–What is the purpose of storytelling? Is it to educate? To cajole? To glorify? To persuade? To analyze? To promote discussion? To enact change? To entertain?

If telling a story again and again leaves no mark, makes no difference in the world, has it failed? Or is it the futility in the telling that elevates it to art rather than education?

In Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad, the Poet is fated to tell this story, the story of the Trojan War, over and over again—always hoping that this time will be the last. When Emily Trask takes to the stage, she is at first professorial, distracted, speaking in Greek, almost surprised that there is an audience. There is little hint in the beginning of the absolutely phenomenal performance she is about to give, a performance fully supported by Director Lenny Banovez’s powerful vision which commands and gets outstanding contributions from every technical area from set to sound to lighting to costumes.

The tale itself is ancient, literally thousands of years old, and it matters not whether the audience member knows it or not upon entering. The playwrights provide all the information needed in the course of the play without making it dull for those who already are familiar with Homer’s great epic. While the language is elevated, it is modern, only rarely slipping into verse or pulling phrases from the original Greek. It is erudite, but accessible.

Trask is eventually joined on stage by a Muse, Alicia Storin, who never speaks, except through her cello. The cello provides a constant accompaniment and a musical dialog that contributes to the storytelling. Storin has done this play at two other theaters, contributing original music to this innovative story. She is not, though, just a musician providing music. She is very much a part of the fabric of this story’s tapestry. She is always engaged in the storytelling, whether it is through a raised eyebrow, a nod, a disapproving frown. She listens and she helps to tell the story.

The story is ostensibly that of Achilles and Hector, nine years into the Trojan War. The Poet wavers between being proud of how often she has told this tale—boasting of how she once sung it for a year straight, telling us how it’s a really good story, explaining how every culture revels in it—and being nervous about having to tell it again, always remembering the toll that it takes on her.

It is a story that is at once cultural, political and personal. It is a story of war and of rage. It is a story of horror and loss and heartbreak. It is a story of heroism and glory.

And it is all told by a single person who gives her all to make it come alive.

Throughout the course of the telling, she presents many characters, but this is not a Tuna-type performance. She doesn’t become the other characters. It is always the storyteller portraying the characters, which is a fine distinction, but an important one in making this production work in an authentic manner.

She’ll often break from her narrative to help set the scene, to draw metaphors to help a modern audience understand the context, to explain the emotions of the scene or sometimes simply to feel them.

For two hours, Trask paces the stage, climbing the set, jumping from box to box, berating the gods, acting out battle scenes, and sometimes walking out into the audience and appealing directly to them. She is able to have her character stumble without stumbling as an actress. She weeps, she rages, she finds those exquisite moments of peace and grace.

It is … magnificent.

Banovez, Hope Summer Rep’s new artistic director, makes brave choices in this anti-war production, an anti-war story that sometimes glorifies war and, like Homer, is sometimes an apologist for the humans who can’t seem to stop making war no matter how many times they are told of the horrors it causes.

The first courageous choice Banovez makes is in casting Trask, for the show traditionally has put a man in the role of the poet, with the co-playwright O’Hare being the original actor who developed the script. Yet, Trask performed it so well, that she made it seem right and natural that the role should be played by a woman.

Other productions have chosen to tell this story with a bare stage. Banovez collaborated with a technical team to create theatrical magic supporting the work of his storyteller and it was an effort that paid off in a spectacular extravaganza.

It started with Sarah Pearline’s scenic design, a series of crates that added layers and height to the stage. The crates opened up throughout the show to reveal projections and other surprises that helped the Poet tell the tale. She also provided a library on the upper level that established the poet as a professor and a scholar, one whose goal went beyond entertainment in telling the story of the Trojan War.

Eric Van Tassell was the lighting designer and his book of lighting cues must have been enormous. Erin Cowger was the assistant lighting designer and there was more than enough to keep the two of them busy with the lights constantly changing, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in major ways. They provided mood lighting, special effects, house lighting that went up and down, LED lights interior to the set that changed at precise moments of the story. And as complicated as the lighting design was, it was all perfectly executed.

Much of the sound was provided live by Storin, but by no means all of it. Josh Schmidt provided drums, birds, wind and many other sound effects—even additional cello music that sometimes augmented Storin’s playing and sometimes answered it. Haley Borodine was props master and she made an incredible model of the city of Troy as well as the numerous books and papers that will have to be recreated for every performance. Her props were often crucial parts of the storytelling, wheeled out in crates and highlighted with spotlights.

One of the things that makes “An Iliad” so magnificent is that it is so open-ended. There are hundreds of moments that provide fodder for post-show discussion. When the Muse delivers a sharp reprimand to the Poet for complaining about the gods, is she defending the gods or merely disallowing the abdication of human responsibility for their own folly? It’s merely a moment among many moments, all that are open-ended and leave opportunity for audience members to analyze, to question, to discuss.

Every choice in the play feels deliberate on the part of the playwrights. They gloss over the victory, almost as if it makes little difference who won and instead briefly touch on the horrors that were the after-math of the war. It was clearly a choice made in service to the theme, in tribute to the overall story which they never stray from.

It is, almost by definition, good storytelling.

It is also something unique to this collection of storytellers. The play will be done again by others, but never again with this combination of artists. So do yourself a favor—get out to Holland and see this show before it is over. It is stunning and will feed your mind and your soul.

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