Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
An Iliad, a collaborative work by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, swathes the text and themes of Homer’s great epic (translation by Robert Fagles) with colloquial idiom and a contemporary perspective. Directed by Juliet Rodriguez-Elliot at A Noise Within, it’s a potentially powerhouse drama that illuminates the antiwar message of a multi-millennium aged classic, aligning it with the endless bloody warring throughout history.
An Iliad was first presented in Los Angeles at The Broad Stage in 2014, with a riveting performance by O’Hare under Peterson’s direction. This production features Geoff Elliot and Deborah Strang double cast as the drama’s sole character, the Poet, who recounts events near the end of the Trojan War. The challenging role calls for the actor (Strang was featured at the matinee I attended) to deliver an unbroken monologue for nearly two hours, establishing a singular persona as the storyteller, as well as representing other characters — the saga’s pivotal warriors, Achilles and Hector, plus an assortment of their relatives, friends and enemies, including an insidiously arrogant Agamemnon and a remorseful but still come-hither Helen. Staging is minimal; the piece plays out on a dark proscenium, empty save for a ladder, some lighting equipment and a bunch of containers positioned in shadows upstage.
Strang’s world-weary seer makes an entrance wearing the dusty clothes of an itinerant hobo. Right away we’re informed of the fatigue that weighs on her spirit and undermines her task. “In the old days, we’d be in a tavern, or a bar,” she says. “It was so much easier to talk about these horrors in a bar.” Indeed, throughout her discourse, the Poet keeps a bottle of tequila, frequently imbibed, at hand.
So much of the narrative’s force is the artful way its creators have embedded the myth with the contemporary and the familiar. It boosts our sense of the universal when Troy is depicted as a community of decent folk — people who enjoy concerts and art, and who come together at civic meetings to discuss how to preserve the city’s beloved and emblematic fig tree. Hector, their star warrior, is a decent guy; he’d rather be home taming his horses and in close proximity to his beloved wife and child than out on the battlefield. But there it is.
The play’s most powerful scene is the climactic confrontation between Achilles and Hector, following a wild chase, while the moment which moved me most was the grief of Hector’s wife Hecuba when she learns her husband’s fate. Throughout, the impulses and passions of humanity vividly emerge from the myth.
Veteran performer Strang brings all of her considerable presence and professionalism to the role, although the trappings of technique were still visible in this initial performance, hopefully to disappear as the run continues. I found designer Ken Flood’s lighting a bit too dim to serve this performer to best advantage; I would have preferred to see her face, as she reacts to her own speech, more crisply lit (especially as there are few other visuals to focus on). And composer/performer Karen Hall’s accompaniment on cello, while it adds an appropriately harsh tone of horror, occasionally overrides the text, and might be finessed.
A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Sun., 2 p.m., through October 3. Tickets at https://www.anoisewithin.org/play/an-iliad-2/.
Photo by Eric Pargac
Deborah Strang as The Poet in An Iliad at A Noise Within
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