The main point I want to make with regard to Court Theatre’s An Iliad is “wow.” The rest of what I have to say is pretty much a gloss on that.
According to a program note written by Court dramaturge Drew Dir, stage director Lisa Peterson was out to devise a play about war and enlisted the aid of Denis O’Hare, the onetime Chicago actor who’s probably best known now for ripping people’s spines out of their bodies as a 3,000-year-old vampire on True Blood. Going back to basic texts, Peterson and O’Hare consulted “Western civilization’s first war story,” the Iliad (also about 3,000 years old, as it happens). O’Hare would declaim from Robert Fagles’s spritely translation and then “explain, extemporize, and elaborate” on what he’d read. The result of this confluence of Homer and O’Hare is a 90-minute monologue during which a character called the Poet narrates events from the cataclysmic tenth and final year of the Trojan War, using lines from Fagles and even the original Greek—but also talking to us in his own, often anguished voice.
As you may remember from that classics class you took freshman year (though an informal survey suggests that you probably don’t), the Iliad focuses on Achilles, he of the vulnerable heel, semi-divine parentage, and incredible martial prowess. The Greeks can’t beat Troy without him, yet their leader, King Agamemnon, insults and degrades Achilles by demanding that he hand over his most beloved war prize, the princess-slave Briseis. Achilles acquiesces, but the sacrifice is an huge blow to his identity as a warrior—which is to say, to his identity, period. In protest, he refuses to fight.
Naturally, things go badly for the Greeks after that.
Battling under their own hero, Hector, the Trojans push the Greeks back from the city walls and down the beach so far that Agamemnon’s soldiers find themselves with a choice between having to counterattack or swim home. Still, Achilles won’t fight. Instead, he lets his friend Patroclus put on his armor and pose as him in order to demoralize the Trojans. Achilles gives Patroclus specific instructions on how far to carry the charade, but in a stunning passage powerfully presented here, Patroclus gets carried away. Accessing a new ferocity, he becomes a killing machine, forcing the Trojans back to their gates. Apollo won’t have it, though. He intervenes, Patroclus is killed, and Hector inherits Achilles’s armor. All of which sets up a duel between Hector and a grieving, enraged Achilles.
An Iliad tells the whole story in an artfully edited form that not only hits all the important plot points and set pieces but renders them with a deep consciousness of their ironies, agonies, subtleties, and implications. It’s not lost on O’Hare and Peterson, for instance, that the confrontation between Hector and Achilles acquires a peculiar psychological resonance by virtue of the fact that the two men face off with Hector wearing Achilles’s armor. The authors are also able to communicate a clear sense of what it means to Achilles to surrender Briseis, which can be a thorny matter for a modern audience given that (a) we’re unlikely to share his warrior values—or, anyway, to acknowledge that we share them—and (b) that he took possession of Briseis by killing everyone she knew.
What’s not quite so clear is why Timothy Edward Kane’s Poet speaks of all these matters while standing in—well, I’m not sure what director Charles Newell and set designer Todd Rosenthal have him standing in. Some kind of cross between a bombed-out subway station and a Turkish bath? The deep end of a drained, post-apocalyptic swimming pool? More obscure still is the meaning of the grain or sand or something that pours down over the Poet at one point, and that he pushes into piles and then levels and then forces over an incline. Is it a metaphor for the beach at Troy? A visualization of sand castles crashing into one another? I don’t know.
And, oddly enough, I find I don’t care. The main thing is Kane’s strenuous and beautiful tour de force. Fierce, anguished, funny, athletic, Kane huddles at times like a homeless man trying to sleep under a bridge then sprints up a wall. He doesn’t seem to pace himself yet has more than enough strength for the whole haul. He’s extraordinary, and O’Hare and Peterson have given him a great gift in crafting An Iliad with such a knowing sense of how to exploit his actorly skills. Their antiwar message, when it comes, isn’t offered in some kind of pious homily but in a litany of the names of just about every conflict from the Trojan War on up to the war on terror. It’s at once a devastating statement and an opportunity for a bravura performance. Kane delivers both. Wow.