03/08/2012 05:33 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

First Nighter: An Iliad Is Homer as He Was Meant to Be Heard and Seen

What a high-wattage light-bulb idea it was for Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare to adapt Homer's epic poem The Iliad for the stage. It's an obvious choice, since Homer -- whoever he was or they were -- ostensibly recited the mesmerizing tale to innumerable crowds of listeners long before it was set down for the etched, quilled or printed page.

Obvious ideas are usually the best, of course, although it often takes time for anyone to grab on to them, as Peterson -- also directing -- and O'Hare -- splitting the acting chores with Stephen Spinella -- have done to colossal effect at New York Theater Workshop.

Specifying the piece as An Iliad rather than The Iliad, the intrepid adapters signal they're working the original for their particular purposes from the Robert Fagles translation. It's their notion that with American soldiers still stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan (soon Iran?), it's essential they establish Homer's tale -- which a few millennia ago was intended to outline the waste to which war often leads without many heroic redeeming results -- as a contemporary parable.

The troubadour they present doesn't escape being overwhelmed from time to time by the nine-year battle he's detailing. It's the horrendous offensive the Greeks waged against the Trojans in their fortified city after Paris abducted Helen. On the other hand, the tale-spinner is also informal, colloquial. Aware that reciting the names of obscure cities from which the Greek soldiers were recruited won't have much meaning for contemporary audiences, he likens them to, among other places, Brooklyn, the Bronx, the South Bronx. At a later moment, he lists the wars that have plagued our benighted planet from the dawn of humankind right up to and through what's transpired in the Middle East during the last few years. He likens the destruction of Troy to Dresden, Hiroshima, Kabul.

Arriving in a bulky overcoat and hat and carrying a battered valise from which he eventually takes a bottle of booze, a glass and one or two other items, the narrator delivers his monologue with urgency. Yet, he often seizes the opportunity to relax on a chair he keeps repositioning or he perches on a long table he pushes back and forth.

The driven figure covers most of the crucial episodes Homer includes to make his points. He speaks of Helen's cuckolded husband Menelaus and the other patrician Greeks Patroclus, Nestor, Agamemnon. He refers to the implicated Trojans -- Priam, Andromache and her doomed young son Astyanax. He imitates Paris' off-hand attitude towards the chaos he's caused.

He devotes much of his discourse to the great retired warrior Achilles, whose heel is the only part of his body that his goddess mother Thetis failed to protect when, by dipping him in the river Styx, she sought to make him impervious to injury. It's Achilles' eventual, inevitable confrontation with Hector to which An Iliad builds and which serves as the intermissionless script's highly dramatic climax.

Missing from the cleverly reworked text is coverage of the beloved Trojan horse tactic--that back-firing gift from the Greeks. It's mentioned, but only in a summary of developments the narrator insists he won't delve into because he's become too upset by the revelations already made. The beg-off makes sense in light of how discouraging so much discussion of war's deleterious effects can be. Nevertheless, O'Hare's and Peterson's dispensing with recapitulation of that brilliant Greek strategy feels as if -- despite the several workshop presentations through which they toiled -- they just allowed themselves to run out of steam.

All the same, listening to An Iliad in a manner that could be breathtakingly close to the way its first audiences heard and saw it is a treat too good to miss -- so good that though I attended both the Spinella and O'Hare performances in the line of duty, I was so turned on by the story as well as by the story-teller that I left Spinella's turn raring to hurry back for O'Hare's.

As a result, what definitely won't be issued here is a one-is-better-than-the-other verdict. O'Hare and Spinella are deliciously equal but quite different. If time and budget allow, it's worth seeing both. Besides which, Peterson's direction is neatly suited to whichever man is officiating.

Bearded and barefoot, Spinella immediately registers as Homer himself, either reborn or still trouping after all these years. Although hardly skirting emotional depth, Spinella's is a more refined unfolding of the saga. He's Homer for the ages, repeating incidents not because he wants to but because he's been compelled to in the futile hope his anti-war message will finally lead to lasting peace.

O'Hare, wearing boots but no beard, is more the modern man who's taken it on himself to disseminate Homer's timeless account with street-cred intensity. His dark eyes darting, he looks as if -- recently returned from Baghdad or Peshawar as a veteran -- he's had a stateside calling he can't ignore.

The performing constant, perched on a catwalk above Rachel Hauck's basic set is bassist Brian Ellingsen. With consistent finesse, he supplies mood-establishing underscoring and anxiety-provoking sound effects, all of which are Mark Bennett's design.

War may be hell, but in the O'Hare-Peterson-Spinella An Iliad, war is also heaven.