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Theater Review (Philadelphia): ‘An Iliad’ by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare

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An Iliad begins with the immortal words of Homer’s Iliad: “the rage of Achilles, sing, oh goddess.” Immortal, as it turns out, not because Homer’s epic is a foundational text of the Western canon, but because The Iliad tells the story of a war, and war is eternal.

Declaimed in the original Greek by a world-weary Poet (Peter DeLaurier) who drags himself onto the stage with shuffling steps, those haunting words evoke a time far past. The play, however, is set in the present: The poet of The Iliad has become immortal, doomed forever to retell the story of the Trojan War, just as humanity is doomed to re-enact it.

That story is a familiar one; few do not know about the theft of Helen by Paris, the rage of Achilles, and the fall of Troy. An Iliad therefore stands out not because of its story, but because of its (re)telling, its translation – in more ways than one – of a legendary tale. The premise is simple: that if war is immortal, the story of one war can serve as a metaphor (or metonym, to be more specific) for the story of all wars. The details will change, but what has happened before will happen again.

A heartrending interplay of past and present reveals an immortal truth. DeLaurier perfectly captures the spirit of a lonely poet, drinking watered-down wine to steel himself for the telling of a story set on the shores of a wine-dark sea centuries ago, and yet who is doomed to see the things he saw long ago repeat themselves. He can retell the story, but, like a cursed hero from Greek legend, is powerless to change it – Sisyphus endlessly rolling a rock up the same hill.

He retells the story in a mix of English and Greek and, in a symbiosis of music and text, a familiar story unfolds, its rhythms and sounds evocative of something distant and mythical, a legend known to all. It is immersive, to say the least. The Lantern Theater Company has made its name in Philadelphia rendering literary plays in unique ways, evoking that aura of timelessness while transforming familiar tales. There’s something fitting about the simplicity of the setting, the bricks and radiators of the theatre a reflection of the Poet’s worn clothes and unkempt hair – he’s traveled through the ages, after all, to tell his story, sometimes in taverns, sometimes in castles, and now, on the top floor of an old row house on a hidden street of Philadelphia’s Old City.

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Peter DeLaurier as the Poet. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Poet is simultaneously carried away by the story and struggling to tell it. He calls upon the Muse (Liz Filios) to help him because he cannot tell the story alone, driven by a desperation to make his words mean, to get through to the rapt audience. But to do so, he must translate, not only from the original Greek, which intersperses the play, haunting and lyrical, but also from the specifics of an ancient Greek war.

At a particularly powerful moment early in the play, he begins to recount the origins of all the warriors who came to fight at Troy, naming long-forgotten Greek provinces. At the audience’s silence (a silence made necessary by the theatrical contract between performer and audience), he realizes these names mean nothing, and so he translates: The provinces he speaks of are the ancient Greek equivalents of Ohio, or Iowa, or Michigan, the good old heartland of America. They sent their boys to fight a distant war just as we do.

Plus ça change…

In fact, one of the great ironies of the play lies in the necessity of this translation, because the details as they are would make no sense to us now. The names of ancient Greek provinces – Boeotia, Euboea, Phocis – sound as foreign to us as the names of our states likely do in any other tongue. War is eternal, but such details are forgettable. The Poet must call upon a Muse to help him describe the war in Troy, just as the Poet of The Iliad calls desperately upon the Muses to help him remember the names of the hundreds of warriors who died for honor and glory at Troy.

The Muses are goddesses of poetry as well as memory, and they aid him to remember; yet forgetfulness is woven through an epic that sings of the great deeds of distant warriors. The irony of Homer’s Iliad is that he’s telling the story of men who died for glory, and yet he does not remember most of their names. The irony of An Iliad is that the Poet must translate.

And yet the ease with which he translates, finding modern-day parallels, reveals an enduring link between a legendary war from a Greek epic and the wars of today. It’s a link woven out of human nature. The names of wars change, but War does not: One of the final, most powerful lines of the play is the poet reciting the name of every major war, from the Peloponnesian War to Aleppo; the Poet struggles to remember every name, and they drop from his lips in an almost endless litany yet in a stuttering staccato: neverending and yet forgettable in their number. It’s a string of names as difficult to remember as the names of every Greek and Trojan warrior, because War will always erase the details of each war, the reasons for it.

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Peter DeLaurier as The Poet. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Peter DeLaurier is perfect as a world-weary bard; his Poet is a disheveled, lost figure, flying from ecstasy to melancholy as he tells a tale as old as time. He is shabby with age, but his words are magical. Occasionally, he slips into the original Greek of the text – and though I cannot judge the accuracy of the pronunciation, the rhythmic, almost musical chant of the words is like an incantation, a magical spell that transports the viewer back to a time when those words, in that rhythm, would have been the shape of this story. Then he slips back into English, alternating between prose and verse, losing himself in the metrical, musical recounting of climactic moments (based on Robert Fagles’ translation) before being forced to translate in another way, explaining in prose all the long-lost references, drawing parallels so that an ancient dispute over Helen of Troy, likened to the Vietnam War, attains relevance.

The other half of a perfect pair is the Poet’s Muse, helping him endlessly retell this story. As played by Liz Filios, she remains silent throughout the play, her only speech residing in the endless number of instruments she plays, which provide the perfect musical complement to the Poet’s text. Their duet of speech and song more than makes up for the occasional failings of the language itself. About halfway through, it dawned on me what was lacking: Metaphor, I realized, was missing from the story – present in those moments of verse taken from Fagles’ translation, but absent from the prose that weaves them together. The language of the play is a bland contrast to the Homeric language occasionally quoted by the Poet, which means that so much of the magic of this play lies in its performance.

And it truly is magical. Telling a story set thousands of years ago, it’s a haunting play for the modern age – a play about human nature, just like the epic it’s based on.

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About Anastasia Klimchynskaya

My mind rebels at stagnation. Find the rebellious thoughts of that constantly racing mind at my blog, Monitoring the Media.