NEW YORK -- Greek poet Homer's 8th-century B.C. epic, "The Iliad," told the story of the mythical 10-year Trojan War, featuring two warrior heroes, the wrathful Greek, Achilles and noble Hector, the peace-loving Trojan prince.
In a mesmerizing play, "An Iliad," adapted from the translation by Robert Fagles, writers Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare have condensed the 24-book poem into 100 intelligent, emotional minutes. The powerful off-Broadway production at New York Theatre Workshop creates a fascinating picture of the general pointlessness of war down through the centuries.
A lone Poet, evidently Homer himself (played in repertory by O'Hare or Stephen Spinella,) travels through time, wearily sharing his often-anguished memories of that war-mongering, vengeful time nearly three millennia ago.
The playwrights' conclusion: not much has changed. The Poet drops in regular analogies to current times and recent wars, yet always returns to his powerful, ancient story of hubris and violence. The dialogue alternates between personal storytelling, as if the Poet had been there himself, and recitations from Homer's work.
There are many moments of humor as well as grief. Poking a bit of fun at the interference and fickleness of the gods throughout the siege of Troy, the Poet suggests that that those gods never died, that they burrowed inside us and became our impulses. "Lust? Aphrodite. Mischief? Hermes. A good idea? Athena..."
Spinella gives a relaxed, mischievous yet subtly mournful air to his portrayal of the emotionally spent Poet, who's been singing his song for so long that he's forgotten parts of it. O'Hare's interpretation combines moments of playfulness and despair with measured, stylized Greek oratory. Both men give intense, potent performances that deeply resonated with two preview audiences.
Much of the story focuses on the wastefulness of war, beginning with "hundreds of thousands of Greek men" bogged down in the Trojan War. The storyteller says resignedly, "Greeks win one day, Trojans win the next, like a game of tug-of-war, and nothing to show for it but exhaustion, poverty, and loneliness." Both sides are fed up with the war and the cost, but neither is willing to compromise and end it.
There are specific tales, like the gory, prolonged death of Hector at the hands of remorseless Achilles. Recalling the brutal desecration of Hector's body, the Poet says despairingly, "if you'd seen it, the – the waste... Just like..." and then launches into a long, remarkable recitation of the names of more than 100 major battles that have occurred across the globe since the Trojan War. In the end, he's rattling off just the names of modern-day countries still endlessly embroiled in conflict – Darfur, Congo, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan – ending up-to-the-minute with Syria.
And why? As the Poet says about the original conflict, "The point is, Helen's been stolen, and the Greeks have to get her back. Huhhh. It's always something, isn't it? " Adding to the eerily timeless atmosphere, the Poet is aided by musical Muses, with onstage Bassist Brian Ellingsen and discordant sound design by Mark Bennett.
Homer wrote an epic myth, but Peterson and O'Hare skillfully relate his ideas and themes to all actual military conflict through recorded time, showing us that we're part of a never-ending cycle of violence. This wrenching theatrical experience is performing only through March 25.