“The Iliad” may be an epic poem, and the actions of its larger-than-life heroes—Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Agamemnon, and the lot—during the Trojan War have been sung down the centuries. But for all its talk of honor and feats of derring-do, don't mistake it for chest-thumping, pro-war propaganda. Even in the 7th century BCE Homer knew that war was a blood-soaked mug's game caused by the human frailties it further exposed. Pride. Rage. Hubris. Emotions, then as now, associated closely with dudes: young men, middle-aged men, old men. Men who start wars and then don't know how to stop them.
"An Iliad" is an adaptation of Homer's work by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, originally developed as part of the New York Theatre Workshop Usual Suspects Program, and premiered in 2012. The playwrights emphasize parts of the story and leave out others—and add in anachronistic references—but it's true to the spirit of the piece. It's also a stripped-down affair, with one actor taking on all the roles, gods and warriors alike, focusing the attention on the language itself.For the Denizen Theater production, the stage of the intimate theater is strewn with debris, like a beach after a storm. One can imagine the beach being the stretch of land where the Greeks and Trojans fought outside the walls of Troy. Standing amidst the wreckage is the Poet (Brian McEleny), who is here to regale us with tales of brave (and sulky) Achilles and the rest of the combatants. (And very occasionally their wives and mothers—Homer's tale does not pass the Bechdel test.) He is accompanied on cello by Erich Schoen-Rene.
McEleny, an actor and director with over four decades of theatrical experience, gives a vigorous performance as the war-weary Poet, who does not want to repeat his sad tale, but he must, to try and make us understand the horror of what happens in war, what continues to happen in war. Early in the play the Poet declaims: "Every time I sing this song, I hope this is the last time."
A note on the aforementioned vigor of McEleny: As well wrenching emotional calisthenics, there is some running in the play. The actor is up to all of it with an unbounded-yet-restrained energy: the moodiness of Achilles; the frenzy of Patroclus; the bullheadedness of Agamemnon; the grief of Priam. There are a few bravura scenes in which the Poet is called upon to rattle off extended litanies of Greek place names, American place names, an accounting of conflicts from the Trojan War to the present day.
The staging at Denizen has a natural, unforced rhythm, sometimes rising to intense periods of emotions, and other times backing off to a relaxed, conversational stance. (McEleny directed himself in the play. The set design is by Jacob Brown and the lighting design is by Tim Lord.) A one-person show is a tricky tightrope walk, but McEleny is as poised as can be, and his performance infuses the material with power and empathy. "An Iliad" is a remarkable evening of theater.
“An Iliad” will be performed through April 2 Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm. Denizen Theater is located at Water Street Market in New Paltz. The show's run time is 90 minutes without intermission.