Wednesday, March 07, 2012

An Iliad

The Poet is exhausted, and why shouldn't he be? He has been telling tales of man's inhumanity to man for years, maybe centuries. If a poet can have post-traumatic stress disorder, he does. Or perhaps it would be better termed intra-traumatic stress disorder, since the trauma never ends. He's a bard of war, and there has always been a war and it seems there will always be a war. And each time he tells his stories, he relives them, poetic flashbacks that break his heart and stir his blood, even though he knows that rage is a disease.

He also knows that we have heard many tales of war--so many, in fact, that we have probably distanced ourselves from the horror. He cuts through the distance. He tells us that the men at Troy are not from Coronea, Haleartus, Plataea, and Lower Thebes, but rather
. . . from every small town in Ohio, from farmlands, from fishing villages…the boys of Nebraska and South Dakota …the twangy boys of Memphis…the boys of San Diego, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Antelope Valley…You can imagine, you can imagine, you know, um…there are soldiers from Kansas. There are soldiers from Lawrence, Kansas. There are soldiers from Springfield, Illinois. Evanston, Illinois; Chicago, Illinois; Buffalo, New York; Cooperstown, New York; Brooklyn; Queens; Staten Island; uh, the Bronx; South Bronx.
And he asks us, "Do you see?" Because he wants very much for us to see, to understand, so he won't have to keep singing of dead boys and mutilated bodies and rape and infants with bashed skulls. Again, he reminds us:
. . . and uhhh the battlefield was just littered with bodies and when you look at it you think, “Oh, well these are a bunch of bodies” but they’re not just bodies cuz this is this is Jamie and this is Matthew and this is Brennan and this is Paul, this is Scottie he was 19, he was 21, he was 18, Brennan was meant to go to Oxford – he had gotten a scholarship because of his writing – his father was a postman he would have been the first child in his whole family ever to go to University -- but he didn’t..
And again he asks, "Do you see?"

"Every time I sing this song," he says, "I hope it’s the last time." But he's not really hopeful. There have been too many wars, too much destruction, too many cases of rage poisoning. Too many people poisoned by pride as well. Too many people in too deep to pull back.

Yes, The Poet doesn't want to be here. He doesn't want to tell the story again. His memory is going. He's profoundly burnt out. But he's a poet and an old pro, and even while he wants to teach us, shock us, he also wants to enthrall us. And he does.

Director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare have done a magnificent job streamlining The Iliad (based on Robert Fagles's translation) and making it speak to the 21st century. It's a bit too long, and it can be hard to keep track of who's on whose side and why, but these are small complaints in light of the brilliance of what they've accomplished.

And, of course, it takes a village to raise a one-man show. Director Lisa Peterson, bassist Brian Ellingsen, scenic designer Rachel Hauck, costume designer Marina Draghici, lighting designer Scott Zielinski, and composer-sound designer Mark Bennett all contribute enormously.

So now we get down to the performers alternating as The Poet: Denis O'Hare and Stephen Spinella. Both are excellent; both give performances of olympian stamina and memory. But Denis O'Hare brings more depth to the story. Spinella comes across as an actor who wants to be loved and wants to impress us. O'Hare comes across as The Poet, burned out, heartbroken, wanting only to make us see.

(press ticket, third row center)

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