Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

An Iliad
American Players Theatre

Also see John's reviews of A Streetcar Named Desire and Pippin

Alicia Storin and Jim DeVita
Likely we all remember a teacher who struggled to make our young minds relate to classic literature. These teachers would attempt to make it relevant and resonant for us by somehow attaching it to events in our world and describing it in contemporary vernacular. As hard as they tried, they would often reveal a sense of weariness at undertaking this task one more time, wondering if they were reaching anyone at all and knowing with certainty that most of the class was snoozing. Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's An Iliad, which was first produced Off-Broadway in 2012 and has seen many regional productions since, seems to have been inspired memories of such teachers.

In this one-man play, a character simply named "The Poet" appears to tell the audience the story of Homer's "Iliad"—that poet's account of the last year of the ten-year Trojan War from Greek mythology. Director John Langs's concept for APT's production of An Iliad pictures the poet as university professor. Entering the "lecture hall" set designed by Chicago-based Brian Sidney Bembridge, actor Jim DeVita, dressed by Holly Payne in the sort of traditional sport jacket, vest and tie we might associate with such academics, takes a moment to catch his breath and collect his thoughts before beginning his lecture. APT's Touchstone Theatre, its 200-seat indoor venue built in a semi-circle around a semi-thrust stage, closely enough resembles a college lecture hall to call this an environmental staging. He begins by reciting from "The Iliad" in Greek before establishing the cast of characters in his story, quizzing the audience to see if they know their Agamemnon from their Achilles. I haven't seen any previous productions of An Iliad, but it seems to me this concept is a smart one, giving the audience a familiar point of departure before entering a story set in the 12th century BC. The concept fights a bit against Peterson and O'Hare's script, which suggests the poet is some sort of ageless apparition doomed to retell the story until all wars end, but one can either ignore or find a way to rationalize that disconnect. The trade-off, if there is one, seems a fair deal. It gains more in accessibility than anything it may lose in strict adherence to the authors' intentions.

The point of An Iliad is to establish both the futility and the immense human costs of war. The poet asks the audience to imagine the soldiers as teenagers from the Midwest, rattling off names of communities from Spring Green, Wisconsin to Chicago and beyond. To demonstrate the enormity of serving in an overseas war for nine years, the Poet explains how the soldiers would return home to find the one-year-old children they left now ten years old—and might find their wives fat—and their farms burned. Of course, for many American families it's not at all hard to picture the costs of serving in a ten-year war. Think of the soldiers and families who have endured multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan since the U.S. presence there began in 2001.

DeVita is spellbinding as the poet. Performing solo (except for the on-stage presence of Alicia Storin as his "muse," a cellist who does not speak) for 110 minutes, he ranges from tired to amused, and ultimately enraged and exhausted. Accompanied by Josh Schmidt's underscoring, he engages and charms his audience but ultimately becomes so immersed in the tragedy of war—this and all other wars—that he continues as if in a trance. The actor bears a certain physical and vocal resemblance to the late Robin Williams, which brings to mind memories of Williams' grounded performance as the dedicated teacher in Dead Poets Society without imitating it. After he breathtakingly lists all the world's wars and major conflicts from the Peloponnesian War through today's conflict in Syria, he's spent—and the point of the apparent immortality of war as a human practice is made. War is as timeless as art and the costs of war are as devastating as ever.

An Iliad will be performed through October 18, 2015, at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Rd., Spring Green, Wisconsin. Performance dates and times vary —for more information and tickets, visit or call (608) 588-2361.

Photo: Zane Williams

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-- John Olson