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.
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.