British poet Christopher Logue's modernist adaptation of "The Iliad" provides unusually vivid and engaging language in writer-director Lillian Groag's adaptation for ACT. But whether "War Music" works as dramatic stage text is a question still hanging after nearly three hours.

British poet Christopher Logue’s modernist adaptation of “The Iliad” provides unusually vivid and engaging language in writer-director Lillian Groag’s adaptation for ACT. But whether “War Music” works as dramatic stage text is a question still hanging after nearly three hours. While often adroitly presented, this evening sports length and breadth without much depth. The curious sum effect is of a divertissement on ancient classical themes rather than something that achieves — or even reaches for — the cumulative weight of Greek tragedy.

That problem doesn’t extend to reading the now 83-year-old Logue’s ambitious project, seemingly still in progress after nearly half a century. The writer’s very contemporary wit and sometimes impudently ripe imagery are so fully integrated into an overall vision that his adaptation’s several parts (only the first-published 1981 section is called “War Music”) far transcend the trend of throwing up-to-the-moment anachronisms into an otherwise straightforward approach to source material. The effect is antic at times, yet seldom does one forget that lives, reigns and epochs are at stake.

That’s often hard to grasp onstage, where so much incident and intrigue are crammed into short episodes — and so much broad performance humor levied on Logue’s already barbed treatment of the ever-squabbling gods — that the lively doings, while picaresque, lack much sense of mortal threat or loss.

Groag and her collaborators do orchestrate stark yet alluring stage pictures on Daniel Ostling’s unit set, a warship hull curving upward to port and starboard on either side, with a large porthole in the rear for framing scenes in miniature (or ones utilizing miniatures), sometimes covered by giant sun and moon.

Though billed large, composer John Glover’s recorded original score doesn’t rise above an incidental-music role, alternately distracting and ignorable. On the other hand, Daniel Pelzig’s choreography — rarely entering the realm of actual dance — utilizes stylized movement and gesture to sculpt players into evocative tableaux. Beaver Bauer’s costumes (all riffs on military uniforms apart from the gold-masked gods) and Russell H. Champa’s lighting also make impressive contributions to a show more unified in aesthetic than narrative.

For a long time, the 13 multicast actors, ear-pricking text and staging gambits make this account of the Trojan War’s inglorious final days stimulating on a scene-to-scene basis. Some ideas are strained (soft-shoe and ventriloquist interludes, a battle scene set to nu-metalists System of a Down). But others are just right, as when Jud Willford’s indolently war-sparking hunk Paris enters in a shiny ’70s disco shirt, or the opening with all cast members spooned in shipboard slumber, each gradually rising as a principal character. There’s mixed reward in having one primary chorus-narrator (Anthony Fusco) frequently abetted by two others (Charles Dean, Andy Murray), then occasionally by still more.

The caricatured heavenly hijinks (Zeus and Hera act like the Lockhorns) amuse but tend to cast a trivializing shadow over what’s going down on terra firma, which ought to accrue fatalistic gravity. It doesn’t — and partway through act two, that absence of sober force begins to wear. Groag ends with the curtain falling, literally and metaphorically, on troops advancing toward death itself. But an image that should be haunting in its penultimate defeatism carries almost no weight here, underlined by the audience’s polite but hesitant applause.

War Music

American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco; 1,035 seats; $82 top

Production

An American Conservatory Theater presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by Lillian Groag, adapted from the book by Christopher Logue based on "The Iliad" by Homer.

Creative

Set, Daniel Ostling; costumes, Beaver Bauer; lighting, Russell H. Champa; original music, John Glover; sound, Jeff Mockus; choreography, Daniel Pelzig; fight direction, Jud Williford; assistant director, Molly Aaronson-Gelb; production stage manager, Kimberly Mark Webb. Opened April 1, 2009. Reviewed April 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

With: Rene Augesen, Charles Dean, Lee Ernst, Anthony Fusco, Sharon Lockwood, David A. Moss, Andy Murray, Nicholas Pelczar, Christopher Tocco, Gregory Wallace, Erin Michelle Washington, Jud Willford, Jack Willis.

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