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The Iliad: Book One
The Iliad: Book One
Putting on the Greeks seems to be in vogue this season. Eugene O'Neil's Mourning Becomes Elektra on Theater Row was followed by Classic Stage Company's An Oresteia, and now the Aquila Theatre's The Iliad: Book One at the Lucille Lortel.
Happily, the latest Greek offering is something that Homer would likely approve. The Aquila's creative team has taken the Iliad: Book One and ingeniously transplanted the ancient tale to the World World II era. Inspired by the famous D-Day photograph "Into the Jaws of Death" (with American soldiers wading ashore at Omaha Beach on June 6th, 1944), the iconic image has been dynamically superimposed on the physical production. The result is visually arresting, breaking open the myth and infusing it with modern meaning.
Director Peter Meineck combines movement (Desiree Sanchez), words (Stanley Lombardo's translation )and music (Anthony Cochrane), carefully balancing all to achieve his theatrical effects. He resisted the current directorial mania to rewrite the myth and risk compromising the power of the great classic. He thus seems to ride easy in the harness of the old tale, reworking the story visually through the World War II setting.
Wearing the dual professional hat of production designer Meineck has also developed interesting stage business that serves the story but doesn't clutter it. His Greeks take five rectangular crates— the only props on an otherwise bare stage—-and smoothly and artfully shifts them to convey very different spaces and images: characters sitting on royal thrones, wading ashore to beachfronts, and advancing into battle camps. Meineck does at times strain after an effect but, more often than not, he achieves it.
By any definition, the The Iliad is an epic poem: It centers on the final year of the decade-long Trojan War, with the Greeks raiding the Trojan towns and dividing the spoils. Though we don't get to experience the total arc of the epic in this compressed show, we do get a fascinating look through the prism of Book One. Instead of panoramic detail, we get a story told in broad dramatic strokes, mostly centering on the rage of Achilles (John Buxton), and his personal search for honor and meaning.
The action begins with the ensemble moving in stylized military formations, gradually forming a tableau on stage. This picture is jarred when the cast members pierce the silence with a stentorian cry: "Rage!" It's a glass-smashing sound—operatic in its force. After a pause the actors continue with the opening lines to The Iliad: "Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,/ Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks/ Incalculable pain. . ."
Rage is at the core of the myth and we feel its rumbling force in each scene. Naturally, Achilles and Agamemnon (Nathan Flower) are at the dead center of the conflict, ever at each other's throats. The immediate reason for the Greek heroes' problems concerns their wrongful taking of two young women as war trophies. Achilles no sooner begins his heated accusations against Agamemnon when an old priest Chryses (Jay Painter) arrives to reclaim his kidnapped daughter Chryseis (Vaisnavi Sharma). Chryses offers a ransom, but Agamemnon won't relinquish Chryseis. The old priest complains to the Olympians about his abducted daughter, and the sympathetic gods send a lethal plague to the Greek camp. Yes, the Olympians are vengeful figures in this war story, and crush any Greeks who cross their lofty plans or judgements.
In drawing on only Book One of the Iliad do we miss the larger sweep of the myth?. Yes and no. In this very visual production, the well-springs of physical movement are explored and plumbed at great depth. A flexed arm becomes a simile for battle and a simple somersault becomes a metaphor for a fall from grace. Many scenes shock like a cold shower. But the most powerful episodes by far are the ones evoking the iconic D-Day photograph, with the ensemble re-enacting the American troops coming ashore at Omaha Beach. The miming of this image becomes the major motif of the evening and each time it recurs, it gains more intensity and pathos.
While Meineck has obviously tried hard to teach his cast vocal aristocracy, their delivery is uneven. In the mass debates among the Greeks, the barrage of language is confusing. The taut dialogues between Achilles and Agamemnon the language are much more natural and convincing. Achilles's scene with Agamemnon in which he accuses him of being a greedy war monger ("You shameless, profiteering excuse for a commander"! ) is later reinforced by equally scathing retorts ("Afraid to look death in the eye,/ Agamemnon? It's far more profitable/ To hang back in the army's rear—isn't it?"). It's these emotional exchanges and the flecks of wit, between the 2 heroes that prove to be the more satisfyingly acted episodes.
Stanley Lombardo's 1998 translation of is a gem. In the program director's note, Meineck revealed that the company originally relied on Robert Fagles's eloquent translation, but found that Lombardo's punchy, hardbitten version was inherently more performable. Translating a 2700 year-old text is no easy task for a scribe. But Lombardo has poured old wine into new bottles with verve. Admittedly, his brilliant translation is overshadowed by the production's bold imagery. But his colloquial translation is a lasting achievement nonetheless.
The Aquila Theatre's project of staging Homer's epic poem is a ten year labor of love and has already taken on a certain patina. Starting out in 1999, it auspiciously began its stage life at Lincoln Center, and branched out to other New York venues like the Classic Stage Company, eventually touring overseas to Syros, Greece. The production is also part of the National Endowment of the Humanities's Page and Stage project, a community partnership that links public libraries with performing arts centers across America.
So many productions of Greek works get strangled in the cradle, but not this one. No doubt Aquila's dedication has enabled this work to grow sturdy theatrical roots.