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A CurtainUp Review
An Iliad

Postscript: A Follow-up to My Review of Denis O'Hare's Performance
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.. . — Opening line of The Iliad
An Iliad
Denis O'Hare
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Remember The Iliad? It’s that epic war poem that everybody expresses reverence for, but few read without coercion.

Well, Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson go a long way towards rescuing Homer’s immortal masterpiece from the dust heap with their new work An Iliad, now running at the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) in the East Village. O’Hare, who performs (in repertory with Stephen Spinella) as The Poet, shows us that the stage can accommodate this juggernaut which grimly progresses from the rage of Achilles to the death of Hector in just 100 minutes.

At the intersection of tears and attack, O’Hare gives vivid accounts of the Trojan War in its tenth year. Using Robert Fagle’s translation of The Iliad he has excavated crucial episodes from the text (15, 693 lines of hexameter verse in the original) and interwoven a blur of contemporary culture and chaos to spin it into an unforgettable yarn.

Dressed in a rag-tag outfit with a worn hat and minimal props O’Hare finds a new path into the heart of the great classic. The piece begins with the Poet walking onto an almost empty stage carrying an old suitcase.

Though the monologue is centered on the mighty battle between Achilles and Hector, it doesn’t lose sight of the smaller dramas transpiring in front of Troy’s famous Scaean Gates. Indeed our narrator often morphs from his role as The Poet to insinuate himself into a number of other personas, each new character articulates An Iliad's world view and propels the narrative forward.

Achilles gets the lion’s share of the evening and O’Hare is at his best portraying this greatest Greek fighter. For starters, we learn about his sulking in the Greek camp after King Agamemnon insisted that he return the 15-year-old girl Briseis to her father. (Ouch! She was his most treasured war booty!) Then we listen to tales about his dearest friend Patroclus, whose brutal death goaded him back to the front lines of battle. Later on, we follow Achilles to his final (and deadly) confrontation with Hector, and his poignant meeting with Priam, who ransomed practically everything to carry his son Hector’s corpse home to Troy.

Beyond the grisly duels and melees, The Poet “dishes the dirt” that accompanies any war, including Troy’s. He also gives us those sparkling epithets that belong to the individual heroes and gods; for example, Hermes is “a young man with fabulous sandals.” The Poet also tells us that some legendary figures, like the “SO HANDSOME” but lightweight warrior Paris, don’t interest him at all. Still, take that supposed shrug with a pinch of salt here, and consider the lurking subtext: Alas, it was Paris who managed to steal the beautiful Helen from her husband Menelaus, sparking the Trojan War.

O’Hare’s control of Homer’s idiom is this play’s most impressive feature. He leans firmly on Fagle’s translation, which is well-known for its clarity and poetic elegance. One might argue that O’Hare is too “schmaltzy,” or irreverent to the masterpiece with his riffs on war (from the ancient to the most contemporary). However, there is no question that he is making the Homeric saga accessible to everybody. Purists will be pleased to know that the presentation is bookended with ancient Greek poetry —. and its Homeric intensity is divine.

According to the program notes, An Iliad is a happy accident, serendipitously brought about by a number of theater personalities and supportive institutions. It began its life back in 2005 when director and co-creator, Lisa Peterson, spent a week at NYTW’s summer residency at Dartmouth College. Hoping to find a constructive way to engage in the ongoing Iraq War, she combed through the classical collection in the Baker Library and, presto, found her inspiration in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. She later recruited O’Hare to guide her in the project and the pair then collaborated and shaped the piece at different venues for three years: a Sundance Theatre Lab workshop in 2009, followed by productions at the Seattle Repertory Theatre and the McCarter Theatre in 2010. Spinella, who stepped in to play The Poet at the McCarter Theatre (O’Hare had a theater commitment), was soon recognized as vital to the play’s future.

With O'Hare and Spinella now alternating at NYTW, theater goers may be in a quandary about which actor's performance to see. Given my CurtainUp colleague Simon Saltzman enthusiastic review of Stephen Spinella’s performance at the McCarter Theater (Simon's review) you can count on a profoundly rewarding experience from either actor Judging from the performance I attended, O'Hare certainly had everyone, including me, spell-bound.

This is far more than a guts-and- glory story. It’s both the first story of the Western world, and a penetrating portrait of war itself. Perhaps the poet William Butler Yeats best described it as a “terrible beauty.”

Postscript: A Follow-up to My Review of Denis O'Hare's Performance

More time with Homer, anyone? Having seen Denis O’Hare’s first-rate Poet in a preview performance of An Iliad at New York Theatre Workshop, I decided to return and watch the other shoe fall with Stephen Spinella’s performance. Though I can't really say which actor outflanks the other in this formidable role (O’Hare and Spinella in repertory), having now seen both, I can assure you that each is adroit at keeping his own talent in view as he moves forward through this epic war poem .

Like O’Hare Spinella is a veteran stage actor, having earned consecutive Tony Awards for his dual stints in Angels in America. While both men bring incredible power to their performance, what comes to the fore with Spinella is his more classical technique and athletic verve. O’Hare, who shares the writing honors with Lisa Peterson, brings more emotional immediacy and perhaps rawness to the piece.

My second viewing not only enabled me to see two different but equally satisfying performances but to take the full measure of Peterson’s intelligent direction. Her innovative blocking, which is quite different for O’Hare and Spinella’s performances, ensured that I wasn't bored seeing the same text within a few days-- O'Hare at Friday evening’s show and Spinella at Sunday’s matinee. A shout out both times to the virtuosos bassist Brian Ellingsen, who finds a way to punctuate the monologue with cacophonous sounds that call to mind a Philip Glass opera. One caveat here: If you want good sight-lines of Ellingsen seated on the catwalk, try to get a seat in the center or at the right side of the theatee. Otherwise, you will miss seeinghis elegant strokes on his instrument. Casting eerie shadows onto Rachel Hauck’s spare set is Scott Zielinski’s lighting, replete with haze that seems exhaled from Hades itself.

The whole point of An Iliad is to make an ancient war poem resonate with our contemporary world. Both O’Hare and Spinella have played Homer and won. In case you're intrigued enough to see both, the theater offers a 2-for-$100 price instead of $70 for a single performance.
An Iliad
By Denis O’Hare & Lisa Peterson
Based on Homer’s The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles

Directed by Lisa Peterson
Cast: Denis O’Hare or Stephen Spinella as The Poet).
Sets: Rachel Hauck
Costumes: Marina Draghici
Original Music and Sound Design: Mark Bennett
Lighting: Scott Zielinski
Stage Manager: Donald Fried
The New York Theatre Workshop at 79 East 4th Street. Tickets: $70 for one, $100 if you see both performances. 212/279-4200
From 2/15/12; opening 3/6/12 (Denis O’Hare performing) and 3/7/12 (Stephen Spinella performing); closing 3/25/12.
Tuesday and Wednesday @ 7pm; Thursday and Friday @ 8pm; Saturday @ 3pm and 8pm; Sunday @ 2pm and 7pm.
Running time: Approximately 100 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 3/2/12
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