Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
The set by Ian Stillman consists of a bare stage save for a tall wooden ladder and a cinderblock wall at whose base is a floor broom, a dustpan, a hand broom, and a sorry looking metal garbage can. Onto the stage strides Tara Flanagan, wearing an aviator's cap with goggles and a military-style overcoat under which peeks a shirt and chainmail skirt. She carries an ancient leather carry bag from which she draws a bottle of red sand which she pours in a line on the stage floor. This is the parapet of the city of Troy and the ladder becomes the high tower from which the royal family can view the battlefield that extends all the way to the ocean beach.
Flanagan is soon joined by her muse and cellist, Eva Rose Scholz-Carlson, and with the same kind of frenetic energy found in Jodie Whittaker of Dr. Who fame launches into an extremely clear version of the epic poem "The Iliad." As the show progresses, Tara removes the coat, shirt, and chain mail skirt to reveal a Greek chiton. She also pulls out a bottle of "Aphrodite tequila" (or, as she puts it, "her spirit"), which she drinks during the monologue.
We are soon introduced to Achilles, Aeneas, Agamemnon, Andromache, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Hector, Helen, Hephaestus, Hera, Odysseus, Paris, Patroclus, Thetis and Zeus as Tara "sings" through the tale of Greek gods and humans and the battles among them.
This is more than just a recitation of an ancient work that most of us had to grind through in high school. Flanagan gives names and personality to these long forgotten heroes and villains. Then she goes one step farther. She relates the Trojan war to each and every war that followed it, giving individual names to the bullet-riddled bodies lying in No Man's Land in World War I. As she recited each and every major conflict since the Greeks landed on the shores of Troy, the theater grew absolutely silent. As she paused at the end of this long recited list, sobs could be heard from various corners of the audience. This is theater.
Flanagan uses every inch of the stage and much of the theater during the show, charging up the steep steps to illustrate a point in the poem. She engages with individuals in the audience by sitting next to them, gets group participation by relating all the small towns and big cities soldiers would come from in America to give us a feel for where the forces came from to form the Greek army. She divides the audience in half to cheer for the Trojan and Greek heroes. In essence, the audience members become a part of the show.
At times Flanagan gets so wrapped up in the poem (especially the battle scenes) you may find yourself mentally checking your shirt for signs of blood spatter from the slaughtered enemy. It is truly some of the most intense just under two hours (without intermission) that you will ever experience in live theater. Do you need to be knowledgeable about Homer's "The Iliad"? Not in the least. The show is easy to follow and strikes a common chord within us all.
Take an epic poem, translate it into modern vernacular, relate it to situations that have been going on since time immemorial, add dashes of humor, the unworldly sounds of a cello, the sheer theatrical power of one tremendous actress, and you have indeed a modern epic that will itself go down through the ages.
An Iliad, through February 10, 2019, at Cleveland Play House, Outcalt Theatre at Playhouse Square, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland OH. Tickets may be purchased online at www.playhousesquare.org, by calling 216-214-6000, or by stopping by the Playhouse Square box office located in the outer lobby of the State Theatre.