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