Story: A poet enters the theater and ascends to the stage. He walks over and introduces himself to a musician seated off stage left. He returns to center stage, turns around and views a triptych of sorts that has an ancient look to it. There’s also a chalkboard that the poet uses to drive home certain points, a simple table and chair, a briefcase and a trunk that contains the tools of his trade.
He then begins to tell us the tale of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, in particular several weeks in the tenth year of the titanic battle between Greece and Troy that started when Paris took Helen from Menelaus, her husband and the brother of Greek king Agamemnon, back to Troy with him. The poet focuses particularly on Greek warrior Achilles and his pivotal role in the Greek assault on Troy.
Periodically he returns to the present, recalling other wars throughout history and his doomed role as one who chronicles this litany of depressing events in the history of his species.
Highlights: This one-act, one-man, 90-minute drama is, of course, based on The Iliad, ancient Greek poet Homer’s epic description of the blood-drenching, overwhelming war between Greece and Troy. In particular, the 2010 script by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson is inspired by the late Robert Fagles, a professor of classic literature at Princeton University who wrote a 1990 translation of The Iliad in language accessible to modern readers.
The strength of the current performance at Upstream Theater is Jerry Vogel’s multi-faceted jewel of a portrait of the poet. It’s an exhaustive performance, as Vogel varies his compelling interpretation with moments of levity, brief excursions into the audience and wistful observations about modern times, while always returning at ever heightening intensity to his description of Achilles’ all-consuming quest to destroy his Trojan enemy and its fearless leader, Hector.
Other Info: That being said, the drama as written by O’Hare and Peterson simply is too static and too slow far too often. While Vogel and director Patrick Siler succeed in making key moments in the tale riveting and sobering, there just isn’t much interplay transpiring much of the time, a familiar liability in one-person shows.
Nijaz Karalic, sitting in for Farshid Soltanshahi, was the featured musician at the performance I attended, and his sure and steady support amply supplemented Vogel’s own inspired presentation. Additionally, Vogel offered some chilling moments as he chanted in an ancient style that added luster and authenticity to the proceedings.
Part of the problem, of course, is that plaintive musings about the horrors of war are and long have been status quo in art throughout the world, and invariably most often ‘preach to the choir.’ Siler,Vogel and the authors shrewdly get around this liability at one point when Vogel exhaustively -- both figuratively and literally -- recites an exhaustively inclusive litany of wars around the world throughout recorded history, up to and including contemporary times.
Aided by the cleverly perceptive lighting designed by Joseph Clapper, Vogel’s very appearance seems to change into a defeated and vulnerable man whose obligation to remember the past seems almost to bury him before he rebounds with a remarkably eternal optimism.
Patrick Huber contributes the simple but highly effective set described above, with some shrewdly selected props provided courtesy of Claudia Mink Horn. Katie Donovan’s costuming nicely outfits Vogel as a somewhat timeless troubadour, so that he fits both in a contemporary mode and as a walking repository of ancient literature.
For a richly rewarding lesson in astute acting, Upstream Theater’s presentation of An Iliad is well worth your time and attention. For absorbing and vibrant drama, perhaps not so much.
Play: An Iliad
Company: Upstream Theater
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand
Dates: June 2, 6, 7, 8, 9
Tickets: $20-$30; contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photo courtesy of Peter Wochniak