BWW Reviews: AN ILIAD is a Masterpiece in Storytelling at Berkeley Rep
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by Linda Hodges
The gripping tale of The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan war and the ten-year siege of the city of Troy, has now, over time, become only one of a thousand wars; an Iliad if you will. This point is brought home to audiences in Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s thrilling adaptation of the 8th century BCE work, which moves back and forth through time and tragedy making it eminently clear that alas, some things never change.
Veteran Shakespearean actor Henry Woronicz plays the Poet, the only man left to sing of the saga and the savagery of those ancient times. Like Scott Bakula in the old "Quantum Leap" television series, it seems that the Poet is destined to travel through time, telling the story to all who will listen, though it’s clear that it pains him to do so. And each time he tells it, he hopes it will be his last.
To his and director Lisa Peterson’s credit, the Poet is played with a purely American accent. He’s one of us and he insistently reminds us that the savage butchery of which he speaks didn’t end on the bloody battlefields of Troy. No, that was only the beginning.
So, there he stands on an almost empty stage, suitcase in hand, having come from some ancient place to Berkeley to tell his story yet again. Costume designer Marina Draghici provides the poet with a layered outfit reminiscent of the early 1900s. A soft, off-white shirt is covered by an old vest and jacket. Worn boots, a hat and an equally worn overcoat complete the ensemble. He is a familiar sort of fellow and we warm instantly to his folksy demeanor.
While the Poet waits for a muse to bring inspiration and perhaps stamina, he begins a recitation of Greek and Trojan soldiers names letting us know that “these names meant something to me.” But the names mean nothing to those in attendance so he puts it in context, mentioning the boys of Nebraska, Flint, San Diego, Berkeley, soldiers from Florida and so on, bringing the battle directly to our shores and for some of us, our doors.
Just when it seems he cannot summon the energy to begin in earnest a muse arrives in the form of a young man on a bicycle. He says nothing at all to the Poet but quickly jumps off the bike and, sprinting up a flight of stairs, takes his place behind a bass violin. He begins a haunting strain achingly wielding the bow, deftly coaxing it across the strings. It is the spark the Poet needs and he begins his tale in earnest.
It is simply astounding to watch one man create the feeling of a thousand ships and thousands more men at war, hacking each other to bits, blooding the beaches with corpses piled high and left rotting in the sun.
And the well-known characters of Homer’s Iliad? Woronicz plays them all. Simpering Paris, the beautiful Helen and stubborn King Agamemnon. King Priam on his knees begging for the body of his dead son; brave and enraged Greek warrior Achilles and noble Trojan commander Hector – they all come to life in this seasoned actor’s embrace.
And, since it’s a first-hand account, the Poet gives us some sidebars. “It was hot,” he says near the beginning. He describes Troy. “The first thing you notice is a fountain…so what you feel when you walk into Troy is a great sense of calm.” We learn that Paris is not very interesting and that Hector is “a brave man but deep down inside he’d rather be training horses.” And through it all the fighting continues.
“What drove them to fight with such fury,” he asks rhetorically. “The gods of course,” is the ready reply. He tells us that when the fighting would wane, “they’d swoop down and pinch and prod and whisper just to make sure that the fighting continued.” We are left to ponder just how much our gods pinch and prod us to fight wars for them today. Or is it mammon that has the upper hand?
Be prepared. There are no vast projections of ships and battlefields or ancient fighting men. An overturned table on Rachel Hauck’s sparse stage becomes both rampart and bed and a chair is a chariot. A few more props are used – but other than that, the play is distilled and focused on Woronicz – and he is masterful. That said, lighting (Scott Zielinski) and absolutely compelling sound effects (Mark Bennett) are pivotal to the storytelling, almost becoming second and third actors in the performance.
“They want to go home,” sings the plaintive poet. He’s speaking of the Greeks but it could easily be any battle worn warrior in any age, missing home. “They’ve forgotten why they’re fighting…how do you know when you’ve won?” How much longer must he tell the tale?