The great value of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad, performed by PlayMakers Repertory Company in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre, UNC-Chapel Hill, aside from providing the invaluable Ray Dooley 100 minutes in which to astonish us with a bravura solo retelling of Homer’s epic in miniature, lay in its making vivid and immediate a text of antiquity about the greatest crime to which one group of human beings can subject another.
We look to art to make sense of war. To drama (Lysistrata, Mother Courage and Her Children and that greatest of all statements on the pitilessness of war, The Trojan Women). To painting (The “Guernica”). To the novel (Catch-22, Johnny Got His Gun, Slaughterhouse-5). To movies (Paths of Glory, The Americanization of Emily, MASH). To music (Pete Seeger’s ballads, which in other hands could become pop hits). To poetry (Whitman’s, and that of e.e. cummings and Wilfred Owen — and, indeed, of Homer himself). Yet even as these works inspire and enrage those of us who submit ourselves to their lessons, we wonder if they are ever enough. Can enough minds be changed to avoid yet another Dresden, another Saigon, another Kabul? For if The Trojan Women could not end war, what work of art can manage it?
Still, after over a decade of disastrous misadventure in Iraq and Afghanistan, the parallels presented in An Iliad could scarcely be starker: A 20-year conflict, engendered by a set of circumstances scarcely less absurd than those that followed September 11, 2001. In Peterson and O’Hare’s free adaptation of the Robert Fagles translation, the Homeric Narrator begins his recitation wearily, even reluctantly, progresses to stirring passion and ends, as he began, appalled and defeated. The emotional cycle itself epitomizes the horror.
The authors make the ancient conflict immediate in various effective ways: through the interpolation of modern metaphor; the invoking of tens of thousands of young soldiers from across America whose numbers evoke the sheer, staggering quantity of boys and men from two small nations amassed on the fields of Troy; and via the Narrator’s seemingly endless list of wars, invasions, revolutions and battles. What begins as historical interest becomes, first, numbing in its comprehensiveness, then intensely moving, as we progress from the conflicts of antiquity to those of the bloody 20th century, and beyond.
(One cavil: Why “An” Iliad? The authors seem to be attempting to universalize their subject through their title — although surely Homer’s narrative is universal enough! — as if they mean “A War,” one that stands for all others. But the word “Iliad” itself refers not to the saga of the Trojan War, but to Troy: Ilium. Also, while I am well aware that there is no true consensus as to the exact nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, even the reluctant are, by now, at least amenable to the notion that theirs was something rather more than a friendship, however close. Achilles’ extreme reaction to Patroclus’ death has been the subject of debate for centuries; I find it a bit odd for O’Hare, himself gay, to, with his writing partner, belabor this point on the side of their being “just very good friends.” Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, indeed.)
Marion Williams’ scenic design may at first have been taken for a construction site, but revealed itself gradually as something closer to a gutted theatre (i.e., the abandoned fresnels on the floor). With its scaffolding, ladder, diggings and paint-splattered plywood, its was a place of desolation — the perfect area on which to recount the epic despoiling of Troy. A hanging rope with bucket attached was utilized both as a source of water for the actor and, in an especially effective moment, in which the chase of Hector and Achilles is described and the bucket moved in a graceful loop, a clever visual metaphor. Williams’ costume design was equally apt: Old, soiled traveling clothes of indeterminate age and era, medieval and, somehow, modern at once.
Guest director Jesse Berger made every use of this set, and of his irreplaceable actor, holding us rapt from the start. And in Ray Dooley, Berger — and we — had an actor of incomparable gifts. Dooley, it seems to me, has everything an actor needs: A distinctive look, a disciplined body that can, in its owner’s passion, tumble from a worktable or climb a scaffold with athletic precision; supreme intelligence; a lifetime of craft on which to draw; and a voice that can encompass everything from exaltation to exhaustion, from searing anger to a grief that quietly shears the skin from its listeners’ faces. PRC aficionados are by now accustomed to Dooley’s uniform excellence. In An Iliad he proves — as he did several years ago in his beautiful reading of A Christmas Carol — that all one needs to create great theatre is a fine text and a single great actor to illuminate it.
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Editor's note: Revised and re-edited 9/11 to correct oversights and omissions in first published version.