March 13th, 2014

"An Iliad," Milwaukee Rep

I gather that the reasons this play is called "An Iliad," rather than "THE Iliad," may include the following: 1. As the Poet tells us, this is one performance out of many; 2. It is one translation or interpretation of the classic story out of many; 3. It is one war story, out of many war stories, out of many wars-which may be all the same story.

James DeVita appears as "The Poet," (as he is referred to-he never gives himself a name or a title) who is a Flying Dutchman/Wandering Jew/Ancient Mariner type of character, apparently cursed over centuries to reappear and tell his tale of war anew each time a new war breaks out, and each time hoping it will be the last time.

The Rep's Powerhouse stage set was convincingly designed to look as though the building were bomb-damaged. Although some power was still on, light fixtures and wiring dangled, the floor had ragged holes, and one side was a heap of rubble.

The back door bursts open, letting in a flood of daylight, silhouetting the Poet, dressed in mismatched fatigues and clutching the archetypal refugee's suitcase. After he has cautiously entered, assessing whether or not this is shelter, the door slams closed and locks. At this point he discovers us, the audience, and knows that the show must, once again, go on.

This is neither a dry, nor a complete reading of Homer's Iliad. The Poet roughs in the setting and the action, making editorial comments, and giving context. Instead of the "catalog of ships," at one point he gives us a catalog of wars, listing more than a hundred beginning with the ancient Greeks, and ending, ". . . Syria, --Ukraine."

However, the story comes most to life when he enacts scenes from the epic such as the confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles. We see Patroclus succumb to bloodlust, when, disguised in Achilles' armor, he routs the Trojans. We are appalled by Hector's unaccustomed brutality in slaying Patroclus. We experience Achilles' rage and guilt at Patroclus' death, his pitiless killing of Hector, and vengeful desecration of the Trojan's body. We hear the grief of Hecuba and Andromache at the death of son and husband.

Redoing these old stories, is when well done, a fine thing, as it brings them back to life and vigor. I didn't quite "weep for Hecuba," but tears came to my eyes.

The other performer in the show is Alica Storin, "The Muse." Ms. Storin is a cellist, and accompanies the Poet on her instrument. The score not only provides emotional support for the story, it also comments on the Poet's commentary, sometimes encouraging, and sometimes reproving him. The Muse appears, vision-like, and adds an eloquent vocabulary of gesture to the dialog of voice and music.

DeVita as the Poet gives a muscular performance, using all the space of the stage, enacting entire battles in his own self.

At last, after he has declined to tell us the grisly details of the sack of Troy, the door opens. The Poet grabs his bag and escapes. The door closes, the stage goes dark.

This was a very powerful and very affecting performance, very much a "tour de force" for DeVita, and we enjoyed it very much.

"An Iliad" continues through March 23rd. A video "trailer" is here:

"An Iliad," adapted from Robert Fagles' translation of Homer, by Lisa Peterson and Dennis O'Hare, directed by john Langs.

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