It’s almost two years since I was first bowled over by An Iliad.
Working from Robert Fagles’s translation of THE Iliad—Homer’s epic set during the Trojan War—collaborators Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare built a 90-minute monologue around a figure called the Poet, who’s apparently immortal (he recalls gigs in Babylonia) but otherwise not so lucky (he wears a dirty coat and inhabits what looks like a forgotten corner of the Deep Tunnel). The Poet’s memory isn’t what it used to be, but he’s still imbued with both the majesty and the horror of his tale: the passion of the semidivine Greek warrior Achilles as he suffers enormous losses and inflicts the same on others.
In 2011 Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell staged Peterson and O’Hare’s script, with the prodigious Timothy Edward Kane as the Poet. “The main point I want to make with regard to Court Theatre’s An Iliad is ‘wow,'” I wrote at the time. “The rest of what I have to say is pretty much a gloss on that.”
Now Kane, Newell, and An Iliad are back at Court for a revival, and the operative word is still wow. But it’s a different quality of wow. Kane is no less fierce when he wants to be; he roars out descriptions of the most barbaric soldierly mayhem with arms spread, fists clenched, teeth bared, eyes burning like those of the tiger in the poem by Blake. His litany of wars—from the Trojan on up, now, to the Syrian—remains devastating. Yet this time around his performance feels quieter overall, more intimate—even a little more goofy now and then, as when the Poet impersonates a calculating Helen or notes Hermes’s “fabulous sandals.” I’ve been assured that there are just two new pages of text and a few subtle directorial revisions in the whole of this production. The sense, though, is of greater introspection. Pained meditation. Perhaps appropriately for a second run and an actor saddled with a longer list of wars than he had to recite before, this An Iliad centers much more on the passion of the Poet himself, suffering enormous losses with each telling of the great poem that it’s his privilege and curse to tell.