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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

An Iliad

Or: Sing in me muse of the rage of Achilles

This is what Theater is supposed to be. Or rather, this is how Theater was at it’s outset and what the best productions have rediscovered and reincorporated down through the ages. The power of a storyteller, telling an ancient story that resounds in the chambers of our hearts, crafting the world of those far off times and places through our imagination. This is what adaptors Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare have tapped into in their one-performer drama about the horror and the love of war (and we are, as a species, deeply in love with war. Why do you think we’re go to her so often?) The place is a barren, a rubble strewn reservoir, scrawled with ancient graffiti, guarding ancient waters now long beyond the reach of men.

It is here that the Poet (Timothy Edward Kane) has come to meet us. Three thousand years ago the Poet was, for lack of a better word, an imbedded journalist for the Greek Army that laid siege to the great city of Troy. He was the first hand witness to the great battle of Princely Hector, leader of the Trojans, and God-like Achilles, heart and strong right-arm of the Greek army. He composed the song, the story, of their terrible clash and what arose from it to tell to the wives and children of Greece, so that those who fought and died would not be forgotten. And for over three thousand years this same Poet has carried his stories through the theaters of rome, the taverns of England, the fields of Flanders, and the garrisons of Iraq and Afghanistan, to join us here. Here, where he must shake off his weariness, his grief, and with the help of the Muses tell his story one more time.

There are many facets that make An Iliad one of the most moving and magical nights of theater, but most of them stem from the powers of Kane. The Poet maybe the most difficult roll to take that I have ever seen: who ever picks up his mantel must be in their physical, vocal, mental, and emotional prime. Kane is all of these: scrambling about the tilted sides of the set, racing from one position to another, bellowing out the wrath filled war cries of the Greeks and Trojans, juggling a hundred names, a thousand glowing images, and bearing in his own heart, night after night, the immense weight of the loss of those great heroes, both hallowed and unsung. His task is herculean, but he carries it off with boundless energy, grace, and empathy.

Kane’s great talent, among a fleet of them, is his ability to swim so naturally in the language Peterson and O’Hare have pooled for him. In great long pulls of power he dives through the rich translated text of the epic: “Death cut him short, his soul slipping free of his body, winging its way down to the house of Hades” and other such sentences like rich embroidered tapestries. Yet in the midst of all this ancient wordsmithery, the Poet will suddenly surface for air into an easy, humorous colloquial speech about his own travels or the banter between Hector and his wife Andromache, before diving again to take the thundering voices of immortal heroes and the whispered gasps of men holding their mutilated bodies together with their own hands. Both these modes of speech, the Heightened and the Familiar, resonate with us, though at different pitches, and the poet relies on their harmony to show us how we might have seen those days, and the echo of those times that still lives in our own lives.

Kane, Peterson and O’Hare are by no means alone in this endeavor. It is rare to see such a design team fit their work so seamlessly into a performance. Rather than an individual work of art laid on top of the play, each aspect seems to spring organically from the story itself: the Poet a Prospero calling upon his spirits to bend nature to his will. Keith Parham, spirit of lighting, grows or shrinks, warms or cools the story sometimes with a startling suddenness and sometimes with an almost imperceptible shift. Andre Pluess, sprite of sound design, has given the Poet the reverb of an electric guitar to add energy to his voice. And Todd Rosenthal, the set designer, has worked a magic all his own. That barren room of rubble is chalk full with all sorts of hidden surprises, each laying in weight to be pressed into service. Even the elements, water, fire, air, and earth, are called upon to underscore the story, a quarumvirate so essential to our imagination and so rarely taken advantage of.

Unlike nearly all the war plays you will find floating around, An Iliad is not alienating, not grotesquely mocking of the emotions or ideas that lead to and spring from war. Rather, it draws us in close, like stories are supposed to do, to show us the seeds of these deeds, great and terrible, the joys of Rage and the horribly high price we pay for it. By the end of the play, as he hands down the acts of unbelievable cruelty of decent men, and the acts of kindness that flow from the hardest hearts, Kane’s tears (not the Poet’s mind, Kane’s) drip from his beard and mingle with the ours on the floor of that forgotten reservoir. There is something Lear like in his last question, “Do you see? Do you see?” as he stands in a broken world, begging our attention our understanding. But it is not one wasted life he holds in his arms, but untold millions. And so he draws his breath, in pain, to tell the story one more time.

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