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Theatre Review (La Jolla): An Iliad by Robert Fagles, Adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare

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The La Jolla Playhouse is presenting a new and powerful translation of Homer’s The Iliad. This one-man adaptation of a translation by Robert Fagles is by Denis O’Hare (Tony Award-winning actor in Take Me Out). The wonderful Lisa Peterson is the director, and a brilliant actor, Henry Woronicz, is the storyteller.

The Iliad is perhaps the most famous story (outside of the Bible) to come to us through the ages. The tale was always passed on by storytellers who memorized the words and would share them with groups of people. The conceit here is that the storyteller (Woronicz) tells the story as a witness, a reluctant witness. The story pains him to tell but he relates these epic events, concentrating on the killing of Patroclus by Hector and the subsequent killing of Hector by Achilles, Patroclus’s close friend and ally.

Woronicz makes us feel every passion, every wound, and every heartbreak of this seemingly endless war. We feel the pain and loss on both sides and are touched by a scene where Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles to beg for his son’s body. Achilles agrees and the Trojan War is suspended for eleven days while Troy mourns Hector’s passing.

The whole story is told but the concentration is on this human struggle between two great warriors. In the process we meet the vain Helen, the soft Paris, and the loving Andromache. The characters are all brought vividly to life. Thanks to director Peterson’s blocking and use of the entire space and Woronicz’s skill as an actor, this has to be one of the most powerful staged renditions of this story.

The whole event is punctuated by Brian Ellingsen on the electric cello making sounds I have never heard coming from that instrument. Ellingsen is fully engaged in the piece and makes a huge contribution to its success.

By the end of the play a connection is made to all wars that came after and the anti-war message of the play is made clear. An Iliad will play at the La Jolla Playhouse until September 9. It’s well worth the effort to go see it.

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