The plaintive question “Do you see?,” repeated in the course of “An Iliad,” raises this sleek distillation of Homer’s epic from a mere platform reading to a transformative act of theatrical magic. The adaptation, by thesp Denis O’Hare and helmer Lisa Peterson, doesn’t seek to condemn war, but to understand and illuminate it in order maybe — just maybe — to forestall our embrace of it. This seems a vain hope given our species’ history, but it won’t deter our visiting Poet (Henry Woronicz in the La Jolla Playhouse incarnation) from giving it one more try.
Shambling into Rachel Hauck’s vast open black space like a threadbare Beckettian tramp (a nice touch from costume designer Marina Draghici), a vigorous but browbeaten graybeard girds his loins for yet another rendition of the world’s most durable saga. Evidently the gods have placed an Olympian bayonet at his back such that he can’t rest but endlessly describe, for whoever will listen, the Greeks’ siege of Troy and Achilles and Trojan prince Hector’s mano-a-mano mortal combat.
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Frequent breaks from Robert Fagles’ famously lucid translation serve to make meanings inescapable. When a litany of the townships contributing cannon fodder to the siege falls flat, the Poet substitutes communities in Ohio, Nebraska and Florida to convey the Greek armada’s massive scope. Our senses are to be allowed no distance from 3,000 year old horrors.
Additional immediacy insurance is provided by Scott Zielinski’s expressionistic lighting effects, and by a “Muse” — double-bassist Brian Ellingsen — who performs Mark Bennett’s thrilling, thrumming accompaniment, enhanced electronically at moments of greatest stress like a Bernard Herrmann film score.
O’Hare and Peterson have pruned the text to focus on the notion of blind, mindless fury — mostly that of Achilles, but multiple culprits are named — as mankind’s ultimate curse. Yet they don’t back away from the many Homeric instances in which war is celebrated for its sheer excitement, and its ability to bring out the nobler traits of loyalty, duty and honor.
Woronicz, a beautifully expressive and physical narrator, practically bends double with the strain of realizing we engage in war because on multiple levels, we simply enjoy it. It serves our purposes.
Peterson’s purpose is served by shaping the tale to one breathless climax: With Hector dispatched, will Achilles’ rage case him to refuse King Priam’s plea for a son’s proper burial? Or will his rage abate, leaving hope for humanity’s better nature after all? Even if you know what happens from reading Homer (or from seeing Brad Pitt in the movie), you can’t help but be gripped by the dilemma and moved by the outcome.
“An Iliad” supports classicists’ claim — often dismissed today — that canonical works can still speak to us profoundly, though the aid of that modern prism can’t hurt. To explain why the siege of Troy lasted nine agonizing years, the Poet speaks of our refusal to leave a stalled supermarket checkout line for a faster moving one. If we did, we’d have wasted our time on the first line, and that just Ain’t Gonna Happen.
Facile? “Iliad for Dummies”? American combat in the Middle East has gone on in the neighborhood of nine years now, and people wonder why we’re still out there. Do you see?