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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

An Iliad Expertly Acted by Stephen Spinella

Also see Bob's review of The Lion in Winter

Stephen Spinella
A worn-looking man dressed in an old coat and carrying a battered suitcase bursts through the load-in door at the rear of the large, bare to the walls, Matthews Theatre stage and loudly intones in Greek, "Rage, Rage, Sing the Rage of Achilles." The man is a storyteller. He has traversed the world since ancient times telling his mythological tale of the Trojan War, "and two great fighters—Achilles and Hector". Thus begins An Iliad, Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's one act, 95-minute solo performer adaptation of Homer based on the Robert Fagles translation.

Brushing aside the role of the gods, our storyteller (identified as Poet by the authors) establishes the anti-war emphasis and modern language idiom of his commentary up front by noting, "The point is, Helen's been stolen and the Greeks have to get her back. Huhhh. It's always something, isn't it?"

Fortunately for An Iliad, our storyteller is the outstanding American actor Stephen Spinella at the top of his form (co-author Denis O'Hare, who was scheduled to play the role, ankled the production three weeks before the start of performances when he was cast in the incoming Broadway production of Elling). Spinella's storyteller is a masterful crowd pleaser, cajoling us, nudging us and winning our friendship as he takes us into his embrace. His storyteller is also world weary and angry as he lectures us about the futility of war. If this were not enough, over the course of the story, Spinella has to play ten additional roles (three of which are female). Spinella displays an astonishing array of attitudes, voices and postures as he brings each to stage life.

The original music (performed by Brian Ellingsen on bass) and sound design by Mark Bennett enhance the production. Director Lisa Peterson has staged a terrific performance.

The commentary is overwritten. As is wont to happen in "anti-war" plays, the authors write as if they have stumbled upon a new idea that hasn't been expressed for hundreds of years in countless books, plays and films. They preach to audiences as if they are blind to the horrors of war rather than members of the choir. Although the horror of war is neither an ignoble nor inconsequential topic (although it may be sadly futile), it is the story, solidly dramatized that must convey it and not lectures which loosen the weave of the fabric of the story and lead to tedium. In order to modernize the story, we are asked to imagine that the besieging Greek army were made up of Americans, and are prodded by a recitation of a long list of American states and cities. The "war is hell" message is already present as Homer's Iliad, unlike other works of Greek mythology, describes the terrible losses that were incurred in the Trojan War and that they chastened the Greeks of any joy in their victory.

There is no doubt that one can see parallels between the Trojan War and our presence in Afghanistan. Is it futile for us to remain there when Americans have forgotten why we went there in the first place, our government has no clear goal other than to get out by a date certain, and those who have supported us know that we will abandon them? What will be the consequences for peace and free people in the Middle East?

Complex questions are not the stuff of An Iliad. The authors seek to drive home the futility/uselessness of war by having the storyteller intone a list of about 150 wars from the Peloponnesian War to the present war in Afghanistan. The reading of it is portentously directed by Lisa Peterson as if it is the coup de grace for never going to war. Whether or not the lumping of all wars together as equally futile is intellectually defensible and eschewing concern with the particular causes of each war is sensible, it is another list which stops An Iliad dead in its tracks. Still, there is much more to discuss about this adaptation, and that is a major positive.

An Iliad is at its most persuasive and evocative when it sticks closest to the fevered poetry of Homer as translated by Robert Fagles and performed by Stephen Spinella:

This is what war looks like
At last the armies clashed at one strategic point
they slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike
with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze
and their round shields pounded boss on welded boss
and the sound of struggle roared and rocked the earth.
Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground screamed blood.
Wildly as two winter torrents raging down from the mountains,
swirling into a valley, hurl their great waters together,
plunging down in a gorge
and miles away in the hills a shepherd hears the thunder-
so from the grinding armies broke the cries and crash of war.

Someday, we may see An Iliad in a fully staged production with a large cast. For now, we are fortunate that Stephen Spinella has found a role which allows him to share his superlative talent with us.

An Iliad continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday 7:30 pm (except November 7)/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees Saturday 3 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through November 7, 2010, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box office: 609-258-2787; online:

An Iliad adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare from the translation by Robert Fagles; directed by Lisa Peterson

Stephen Spinella

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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- Bob Rendell

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