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An Iliad

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

An Iliad
Denis O'Hare
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson have obviously intended their play An Iliad to function, first and foremost, as an antiwar statement. Though based on Homer's epic, which outlines the turning point of the Trojan War some nine years in, this one-man show focuses most heavily on the specifics, gory and grim, of what it's like to kill, be killed, and watch the deaths of those you love. At that it suffices: Your heart will be twisted and your stomach turned as a matter of course. But the New York Theatre Workshop production also states a less expected and more original, yet equally powerful, message about the nature of stories and the importance of the people who tell them.

Even more than the conflict between Achilles and Hector that consumes much of the 100-minute running time, the competition between its two headliners is what makes An Iliad most surreal and captivating. O'Hare and Stephen Spinella, both dynamic stage stars with impressive resumes counting credits on Broadway and off, alternate as the man identified in the Playbill only as "The Poet." And in doing so they prove, as succinctly as anyone I have ever seen has, how one role is always far more than merely what's printed on the page.

Not that O'Hare and Peterson's script openly invites endless variation: It spells out itself quite matter-of-factly. The Poet enters, bearing a bulky suitcase. He intones the poem's opening stanzas in Greek, no less then realizes where and when he is, and why he's here. He explains a bit about his own background, and sets up the tale to come ("Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time"). He then jumps into it, seldom quoting Homer directly, but tracking the plot and structure closely, injecting elaborations and asides as he deems necessary. (He translates places such as Coronea, Haleartus, Plataea, and Glisas, for example, to Ohio, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Memphis.) His goal is to ensure that we share his awareness that he could be covering any war, from any time, and that we should not take it for granted.

But even these precepts, which are laid out in the first few minutes, prove to be anything but simple as these actors render them. O'Hare takes seriously his anecdote about how such stories used to be spun: "You know, in the old days, we'd be in a tavern or a bar, I guess you would say. It was so much easier to talk about these horrors in a bar." Every event he relates he does so informally, as if the entire chronicle were nothing more than gentle conversation with an oddly insistent stranger. Half of his words, merely as intoned or acted out in full, seem to be apologies: either for details he's forgetting, or for having to divulge some bloody happening he'd prefer to ignore. His personality, from start to finish, is one of a bemused but well-meaning younger brother, the type who's desperate to share what (little) he knows but is just as intent not to offend.

An Iliad
Stephen Spinella
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Spinella's Poet, on the other hand, presents himself as the consummate actor from the get-go. Whereas O'Hare is revealed perched gingerly on his suitcase and doubled over in emotional agony, Spinella appears standing boldly, with stiff shoulders and a puffed chest, within a door frame upstage on Rachel Hauck's blank-slate set as Scott Zielinski's lights come up. He shouts his Greek then strides downstage to address us as paying customers who do not want their time wasted. His voice firm and resonant, his face constantly cracked in an I'm-better-than-you smirk, he speaks of the Gods and mortals of Ancient Greece with the intensity of Hamlet pondering life, death, and everything in between. His rises and falls, of voice and feeling, of command and relinquishment, of grace and monstrousness, are never less than impeccably planned and precisely timed.

Yes, the two portrayals really are that unalike, and that's not all: Director Peterson hasn't even staged them identically, or even close. The lighting plots are highly individualized. Each Poet drinks a different kind of alcohol in a different way (O'Hare's whiskey, obsessively; Spinella's tequila, sparely). The most stunning change is a late-show litany of violence throughout history, from the Conquest of Sumer to the present day Middle East, which increasingly enrages Spinella and withers O'Hare until he's literally unable to stand. Even the ways they treat Brian Ellingsen, who provides musical accompaniment and eerie sound effects on a double bass from a catwalk hanging high above the stage, cannot be compared: Spinella hardly acknowledges him, whereas O'Hare refers to or interacts with him so often, he's practically a costar.

So remarkably unique is each version that neither is "more effective," and thus more worthy, for those who can only see one. Spinella's version is unquestionably better Theatre (capital T included). He plays each character elaborately and for keeps, crafting a stunning collection of voices and attitudes that make the battlefields come alive; and the confidence he displays, even in throwaway moments, is magnetic. Everyone O'Hare voices sounds the same, and his tone of voice dulls into a whine before too long (as has sometimes occurred in his other stage performances). But O'Hare is unquestionably the more moving: You become so invested in this milquetoast, "miscast" man's throwing himself into his ill-fitting task that each of the tragedies and triumphs he describes becomes as deeply and intimately personal for you as it is for him.

This means there are two pieces of good news about An Iliad: One, it doesn't matter which you see; two, the drama isn't meaty enough to demand double viewings for all but the most incessant O'Hare or Spinella fans. Still, it's a fascinating exercise, and one that NYTW Artistic Director James C. Nicola describes in a Playbill note of having slowly morphed over the work's development into a tribute to the Rhapsodes of Greek lore who memorized epic poems and competed with their renditions at festivals many centuries ago. An Iliad would be enjoyable enough as a textual warning across the millennia about the true costs of man's oldest pastime. But it's even more effective this way, letting you witness two exemplary performers provide an X-ray glimpse into the humanity that has so often fallen to swords, spears, and axes.


An Iliad
Through March 25
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticket Central