Friday, October 18, 2013

IRT takes an epic poem off the shelf and makes drama out of it

At the basis of Western literature is one of its most violent books, Homer's "Iliad." The poem's  peculiarly personal way of scrutinizing warfare has influenced the literary treatment of conflict ever since. No way that we get on each other's nerves, no lingering resentment, is too trivial a casus belli, especially where powerful people are involved and can draw thousands into their quarrels.

When Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare put together "An Iliad," they were no doubt imagining that epic poem's legacy mainly as a catalogue of wasted lives, with pointless destruction and ungovernable emotions competing against valor and comradeship.

So, using Robert Fagles' translation of  "The Iliad," Peterson and O'Hare have made the story of Achilles' wrath during the Greeks' protracted siege of Troy a burden upon the Poet himself, carried for all time. The marvels and horrors that Henry Woronicz relates as the play's only character strike deep into the time-traveling Poet's desire to be done with war. Still, he must sing.

Henry Woronicz as the Poet begins his story.
Woronicz, seeming ageless and youthful by turns, displayed his fitness to play this odd character in a preview of the Indiana Repertory Theatre's new production Thursday night. Hypnotically reciting the epic's opening, almost hidden from view at the start, the Poet pulls himself together, wrapped in worn but durable garb, and descends the stairs of what may be a present-day unused warehouse. Then he notices us —  another batch of Homer's eager listeners in a series that goes back 28 centuries — and so he can't help launching into the ancient story one more time, for about 100 uninterrupted minutes.

The Poet has a small suitcase full of battered papers and other memorabilia from his travels. His pride in the success of past recitations quickly becomes overshadowed by the gravity of the material he has to present. References to the simple, mostly peaceful lives led by the young men who have always fought wars soon balloon into a host of named American cities and towns. Consumed by what he took from the oral tradition in the 8th or 9th century B.C.E. and set down for all time, the Poet can't help offering analogies to strife throughout history. He's finally convulsed by grief after rattling off a list of mass bloodlettings ending with Syria.

This seems less necessary as a way to make "The Iliad" relevant today than it is an assertion of mastery over the material. That familiar stuff is rooted in the Trojan prince Paris' abduction (not entirely forcible) of Helen, the beautiful wife of the Greek ruler Menelaos, and the 10-year war that ensues. Homer himself presumably took the long view, as scholars generally figure the Trojan War happened 400 years before he wrote. Peterson and O'Hare figure on striking dramatic gold by lengthening that view and focusing on how the Poet's work both sustains and shatters him.

The adapters risk making "The Iliad" seem like an anti-war tract wrapped around the story of Achilles' rage. That myth-engendering emotion is spurred by his resentment of Agamemnon's selfish maneuvering within the ranks of Greek power centers, then made more brutal when Achilles' best friend, Patroclus, fighting in his place, is killed by the Trojan warrior Hector.

The tone of "The Iliad" of course allows for bringing the pathos of war into the picture. But it is a celebration of war, too, even while it carries reminders that the gods tip the balance and make their partiality known. Justice is absent during the conflict, and rarely prevails at the end. Control is hardly ever in human hands, certainly not among the lower orders. How many ordinary soldiers up to the present, dragged reluctantly into the conflicts of their superiors, have felt something akin to what British poet Christopher Logue puts into the mouths of warriors in "War Music," his adaptation of "The Iliad"?

And under the shields the half-lost fighters think:
"We fight when the sun rises; when it sets we count the dead.
What has the beauty of Helen to do with us?"


IRT's "An Iliad"  benefits from the pinpoint accuracy and variety of Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein's lighting design and Andrew Hopson's sound design (including original music). Such expertise fleshes out what Woronicz, directed by Fontaine Syer, achieves in having the Poet build upon his storytelling task to briefly assume the identities of the poem's men and women and gods — from the wheedling, self-absorbed Helen to the fleet-footed trickster god Hermes. "An Iliad" brings today's audiences closer to a remote masterpiece and will help anyone who attends answer the Poet's final question (which it would be unfair to reveal here) in the affirmative.