In The Moment: ‘An Iliad’ Brings Homer to Millennial Audiences at the Atlas (Interviews)

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It has been a muscular classic read for centuries. It has withstood the test of time, at least up to now. But in these contemporary days, does Homer’s Iliad resonate, or has it lost its timeless meaning? Does it still have a place in literature and theater for new generations?

To my genuine surprise, a modern retelling of Homer’s Iliad will be performed in DC at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The production is squarely aimed at Millennial audiences.

Iason Togias, who plays The Poet in An Iliad. Photo courtesy of Iason Togias.
Iason Togias, who plays the Poet in An Iliad. Photo courtesy of Iason Togias.

How can I write that the production, An Iliad, is aimed at Millennial audiences? It is more than that the production is from an all-Millennial team. New York-based actor and DC native, Iason Togias, who plays the Poet, observed in a recent interview:

“When it comes to war, millennials occupy an unusual moment in American history, While we’re inundated with images and reports of bloodshed, we have less direct experience of war than most generations before us. With this production, we wanted to explore how the story of the Iliad still speaks to us as profoundly as ever, despite our relative distance from the horrors it depicts.”

In chatting with producer Susannah Clark (currently a 2017-2018 Artistic Fellow at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Co-founder and Literary Director of 4615 Theatre Company) I learned this, which caused me great pain: for Millennials and those younger, recent domestic mass shootings and murders at school campuses, though in venues students and their parents expect to be places of safety, may not be so dissimilar to what can happen in military service; injury and death .

Would these young students, like military service members I served with long ago, find themselves with symptoms of moral injury and PTSD as their lives continued on? Is anyone speaking to that issue? Does An Iliad speak to that issue?

This production of An Iliad was written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. It is directed and produced by DC native Conor Bagley, who received a 2018 Tony Award nomination for Best Revival of a Musical for Broadway’s Once on this Island. Original music is composed by Matt Chilton, who also plays the Muse. Production Designer is by Daniel Prosky, a New York-based set designer.

So, first a synopsis of this particular An Iliad production: “a modern retelling of Homer’s classic about the horrors and glories of the Trojan War. While epic in scope, it tells the deeply personal story of Achilles and Hector; of families, lovers, and inseparable friends; and the tragic, yet enthralling, nature of war. But most of all, it is about rage: the way it warps us, the lengths we go to satiate it, and our struggle to control it. With the lone Poet performing the story to the tune of a live musician, experience An Iliad as Homer intended.”

David Siegel: Why did you decide to perform An Iliad in DC?

Conor Bagley, director of An Iliad. Photo courtesy of Conor Bagley.
Conor Bagley, director of An Iliad. Photo courtesy of Conor Bagley.

Conor Bagley and Iason Togias: In this play, the Poet aims to relate the ancient story of An Iliad to a modern audience. We envision our Poet having told the tale of the Iliad throughout history, but now living among millennials. He’s done his research. He’s walked around in our shoes. He’s felt our rage. Now it’s our turn to watch how he conveys this timeless story to a new generation, and what better place to share that story than the city we know and love best. [Both Bagley and Togias were born and raised in DC].

What can audiences expect at this production of the Iliad? You describe it as both “deeply moving” and a “surprisingly funny adaptation”?

Conor Bagley and Iason Togias: When people think of a classic like An Iliad, they probably imagine something long and dense and heavy—a big, imposing monument of a poem. But with this adaptation, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare have condensed Homer’s epic into a lean and thrilling piece of theater that captures not only the tragedy of the story, but also the great beauty and humor in these characters’ lives.

For those familiar with An Iliad, if you could invite them to the production, what would you say?

Conor Bagley and Iason Togias: For those who have seen a different production of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad; in this production, we wanted to explore from the perspective of Millennials. Past actors playing The Poet have largely been much older and have tried to give him (or her) a sense of age-old weariness. In this production, both our Poet and our Muse come to us as scrappy, young Millennials who strive to get their peers to relate to an ancient war story. Our actor also happens to be a first-generation Greek-American and the first actor of Greek descent to play the role, which is very fitting since the Poet endeavors to relate an Ancient Greek story to a modern American audience.

In this production, we wanted to highlight the relationship between the Poet and the Muse. The Iliad begins with the narrator calling on his Muse for inspiration to tell the story. Similar summonings pepper the rest of Homer’s epic poem. One of the beauties of the theatre is its ability to stage these metaphors. We wanted to explore the Muse as a character in the play, to personify our artistic inspiration and elucidate the collaborative and complex nature of creativity.

Please describe the original live music?

Matt Chilton, muse and composer in An Iliad. Photo courtesy of Matt Chilton.

Matt Chilton (Muse and Composer): I developed the incidental music for our production with a few principles in mind: the repetitive, trancelike aspects of epic storytelling, the spirit of improvisation that reveals new dimensions of the epic with each recitation, and the reciprocal interplay between the Poet and his inspiration, the Muse. My parts focus on small ideas like low drones, bright harmonics, galloping “dactylic hexameter” riffs, and other rhythmic/textural motifs, and expand into fully-fledged ideas in the moment. Just as the Poet is dependent on the Muse to inspire his memory and recitation, the Muse is dependent on the Poet to shape, channel, and communicate that inspiration. When we perform, Iason and I are always reading each other’s energy closely and feeling out each moment of fury or tenderness together. As a result, I don’t think we’ll perform the show exactly the same way twice – and that’s exactly how we like it.

Why is it important for Millennials to see this production of An Iliad?

Iason Togias: Immersing ourselves in the story of the Trojan War in this intimate theatrical experience allows us to explore the universal question: Why, after all these years, are we still so drawn to warfare, bloodshed, and death? Are we, as the Poet claims, all addicted to rage? At a time when rage is omnipresent in our society and social media grants our moments of rage unprecedentedly large audiences, Americans today, and younger Americans in particular, can find special resonance in “the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” While we think people of any age will enjoy this production, we hope young adults, in particular, will come see us, and we’ve tried to make it more accessible to them, offering $15 tickets (as opposed to the regular $25) to anyone under 30 years old. We are, after all, an all-Millennial team.

An Iliad plays through June 9, 2018, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.

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