“The Iliad,” Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War and one of the greatest stories ever told, nonetheless triggers an involuntary boredom reflex in many adults.
This could be for any number of reasons: a less-than-enthusiastic high school English instructor, a plodding or overly flowery translation, or merely a gut assumption that such an ancient story must have been rendered hopelessly academic by centuries of wear and tear.
In the Western New York premiere of Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s one-person show “An Iliad,” which opened Friday in the Road Less Traveled Theatre, that ancient war and its many bloody battles come alive like a CNN report from the front lines. In the hands of star Matt Witten, director David Oliver and the brilliant design team, the poem that has launched a thousand yawns becomes a vital and visceral experience.
As the play opens, Witten staggers in from the howling blue dusk carrying a suitcase and wearing a tattered suit. He looks confused and disheveled and struggles for a moment to get his bearings before belting out a few lines in ancient Greek.
He sets off slowly on the great story – forgetting names here, glossing over episodes there. His enthusiasm is obvious. He needs you to understand the scope of the war, from the unfathomable size of the Greek fleet to the acute pain and terror of its individual battles.
He describes the number of Greek ships massing outside Troy by crouching down upstage and turning the rest of the theater into a teeming body of water with the sweep of his hand. He mentions the names of ancient Greek cities the soldiers hailed from – Coronea, Haliartus, Lower Thebes – but then quickly realizes they don’t register with the audience.
So he switches gears: “The point is, on all these ships, are boys from every small town in Ohio, from the farmlands, from fishing villages … the boys of Nebraska and South Dakota,” he says before ticking off a few dozen more names of American towns and the hundreds of ships the men occupy. “That’s 120 men on each ship. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Greek men. Do you see?”
We couldn’t see any more clearly.
With a focus that becomes sharper throughout the production, Witten brings to life all the characters of the epic: Brave and tortured Hector of Troy, tyrannical Agamemnon, Hector’s bloodthirsty rival Achilles and Achilles’ faithful friend Patroclus.
In many readings of the poem and versions that lack the fire of Robert Fagles’ fine translation used for this show, these figures remain flat abstractions. But Witten pulls them kicking and screaming into three dimensions in a way that makes you feel you know them personally.
He gets terrifyingly carried away when recounting Hector’s bloodlust in battle, a scene he performs standing atop a table and rattling off gruesome injuries Greek and Trojan soldiers sustain in battle. He just as skillfully paints a touching picture of Hector’s home and ridicules Paris for his cowardice and for causing the whole mess, always tossing in concrete contemporary connections to a story best described as “a timeless event floating in a timeless world.”
The show’s meticulously crafted mood swings owe much to John Rickus’ extraordinary lighting design, which drenches Witten in a blood-red glow during the play’s most violent moments and casts larger-than-life shadows on the back wall during its more physical passages.
In concert with John Shotwell’s dreamlike sound design and Alan Kryszak’s compositions, Rickus’ lighting gives us that crucial final push into total immersion – a kind of theatrical anesthesia that allows the words to do their work. Once submerged, we lose all sense of our surroundings and hang on O’Hare and Peterson’s words and Witten’s performance, rapt as children at the foot of a master storyteller.
At that point, with all the elements of the production in perfect alignment, we’ll gladly go anywhere he wishes to take us. With such power, a lesser performer might have been content to coast on the strength of the material. But Witten, using all of his considerable skills, guides us into a place that is dark, frightening, humorous, harrowing and ultimately hopeful.
It’s the best kind of 90-minute trip I know of – filled with surprise and wonder, failure and redemption, humor and horror. I won’t soon forget it.
4 stars (Out of four)
What: “An Iliad”
When: Through March 30
Where: Road Less Traveled Theatre, 639 Main St.
Tickets: $17 to $35
Info: 629-3069 or www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org