A man sticks his head in through the door in the back wall. Broken down, dirty, dressed in old but modern clothes, he is delighted to see us, and sing his song. “It’s a good story,” and he’s been doing it for awhile now: “In Mycenae once, I sang it for a year.” It was very popular in Gaul, too, although “every time I sing this song, I hope it’s for the last time.”
The man, The Poet (Peter DeLaurier), is here to sing us the song of Achilles and Hector at Troy. And he does so, for a generally enthralling 100 minutes. It’s a tour de force performance from DeLaurier, long one of Philadelphia’s finest actors, in an ideal role to showcase his skill, his intelligence, and his humanity. This is don’t-miss theater.
An Iliad is written by Director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare (best-known for a series of roles on American Horror Show). It premiered in New York in 2012, with O’Hare and Stephen Spinella alternating performances. It has had numerous productions around the country since then: this marks its Philadelphia premiere. In Peterson’s and O’Hare’s retelling (that indefinite article in the title is important), The Poet is ageless, his tale standing in for the endless string of war humanity has endured throughout the course of civilization (one school of anthropologists suggest that urban civilization arose as a way to support ever-larger armies). Because of this, he does not stick completely to Homer’s text (in Robert Fagles’ excellent translation), but gives us contemporary analogies, digressions, and even stumbles a few times: the names of Priam’s fifty sons and their mothers escapes him.
Early on, DeLaurier demonstrates how the seemingly endless list of ships and men in the Greek fleet hold an audience’s attention in performance, then interrupts himself to ‘translate’ it to something a contemporary Philadelphia audience can understand more: instead of Greek warlords and kings, we get a list of American cities (including Philadelphia neighborhoods and suburbs) from which the “boys” are from, to give a sense of the emotional power the list had for the original audiences. This section also sets up a more devastating list that the Poet slips into later while trying to find an analogy for the death of Hector.
The script is very good, and has unfortunately remained completely timely, but The Poet’s performance and the production are essential. I have seen another production of the play (not with O’Hare or Spinella): what I remember was a sense of preciousness, the actor and director proclaiming “Look at me feeling bad about this story,” without a breath of life. DeLaurier is never sentimental and always entirely in the moment. When he is performing Fagles’ text, it is obviously rehearsed; when he speaks “for himself,” the words seem to come to him in the moment.
But the remainder of the production deserves attention as well. Meghan Jones has provided a gorgeous space for the play, one of the Lantern’s best in recent years: a broken down theater that also becomes a “found orchestra” for the music and sound design of Michael Hahn and Liz Filios, who also plays The Muse, without whom The Poet can’t sing his song. The authors encourage live music for the play when possible.
In some productions, this has resulted in a woman playing a cello onstage. Director M. Craig Getting has decided to take this further, bringing the multi-talented Filios onstage to interact with The Poet: sometimes she gets him back on track, sometimes he stops her when he really needs to follow a tangent. The sound score for the piece uses a large number of instruments as well as parts of the set. It is a very interesting idea, and there are some beautiful moments that result from it. But there are other times when it feels more clever than insightful. Particularly in the descriptions of battles, a generalized sense of chaos obscured the text for me.
Shannon Zura provided evocative lighting. Natalia de la Torre’s costume for The Poet was brilliant, her more generic nymph dress for The Muse felt cliched in contrast: if The Poet’s story ultimately transcends individual cultures and he is contemporary but bedraggled, why limit how The Muse looks?
An Iliad is an electrifying evening in the theater, and a salve for anyone experiencing anxiety in recent weeks.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
An Iliad plays through December 11, 2016, at Lantern Theatre performing at St. Stephen’s Theater – 10th & Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 829-0395, or purchase them online.