‘An Iliad’ reconsiders the poet who brought us Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector and all that
By Nancy Malitz
About a year ago, the Red Orchid Theatre produced a version of Homer’s “Iliad” created by playwright Craig Wright specifically for female tweenagers to perform. No doubt Wright’s aim was to give modern girls a way to understand and to inhabit this epic poem. It was unforgettable.
One’s guard was instantly down as the children, in their innate and searing wisdom, interpreted these warriors and kings as glorious champions who were also petulant, vengeful, jealous and fatally careless. And one marveled as these talented girls portrayed only the warring men. The women’s roles were left to be taken by dolls — literally playthings — that the young actors sought after, toyed with, displayed as trophies, shared and then discarded in fits of pique and boredom.
The “Iliad” on that occasion was surprising, thrilling, new again.
Fast forward to November 2011 at the Court Theatre, and there is yet another intriguing way into Homer — through a new play called “An Iliad.” It is told from the world-weary viewpoint of a traveling performer called Poet who speaks to us amid the vague ruins of some timeless twilight zone.
This Poet, a Homeric alter ego, has been so close to the story of the “Iliad” for so many years that he obsessively tells it even though his memory fails him and his psyche begins to disintegrate. Where he is, where we are, is not completely clear. But he seems to have been around for hundreds of years and he knows we have shopping carts and electric guitars.
The 90-minute tour de force for a single actor has already been staged in Seattle, Portland and Princeton and will land at the New York Theatre Workshop in February. It is still a work in progress, perhaps. But the Chicago performance is a singular achievement of memory, stamina and endurance by an actor frequently seen on Chicago’s stages, Timothy Edward Kane.
Kane, as the Poet, tells the story of the “Iliad” as we sit in the raked arena of the Court with a canvas tented over our heads. The script was originally created by actor Denis O’Hare and playwright Lisa Peterson. They started with readings from Robert Fagles, whose vivid verse translation of the epic they further riffed upon and improvised.
Every aspect of the Court’s spare and beautiful production conceived by artistic director Charles Newell bespeaks an outdoor environment for ancient audiences, who would have listened over many nights as the great ballad of myriad parts was sung. Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal’s old earth colors and brickwork suggest both of modern walls and ancient ramparts, and the deeply beautiful electronic sound world of Andre Pluess also transcends time.
The Poet attempts to make distant deeds seem relevant through modern references to road rage, supermarket lines and a draft that draws fresh-faced teen recruits from Main Streets all over the country. At its best, the tactic is powerful and immediate; in a litany of comparison, the Poet likens the amassing of troops bound for Troy to the giving up of beloved sons from dozens of small American towns he calls by name, one after the other. It’s an impressive shot by the playwright, and Kane has his audience in thrall to the excitement, the alarm, the historic sweep and potentially grim sacrifice that lies ahead.
Late in the play there is another catalog, of wars from the time of the “Iliad” to the present. Kane’s reading nearly lifts off from the realm of speech into something closer to incantation, giving us a glimpse of the powerful hypnotic pulse that must have enthralled Homer’s legendary audiences.
As a lyric in the spirit of Homer, the litany of wars seems right on the mark. But this extended passage so near the end of the work also threatens to tip “An Iliad” into more of an anti-war agenda than one actually finds in Homer. He clearly viewed war as inevitable, if horrifying and futile, and he sang of heroic might and bravery in battle as the heights of human achievement.
As for the occasional speech-song utterances that Kane delivered in ancient Greek, truly music to the ear, one was reminded that experiencing the ‘Iliad’ in any translation is probably indeed like “kissing through a screen door,” as University of Chicago professor Glenn Most put it in the program book. But we are the Greekless many, and must be content with a language we can comprehend. It’s our good luck that “Iliads” of every sort keep coming.
- Explore the creators’ source material: Find the excellent English language verse translation by Robert Fagles at Amazon.
- Listen to the epic: Derek Jacobi reads an abridged version of the “Iliad” with a musical, authoritative and classically trained voice.
- Watch Todd Rosenthal’s sets come into being: Scroll through the pictures at the Court theatre blog
- Location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com