The New York Theatre Workshop’s production of An Iliad, running Off Broadway through March 25, is the latest attempt to make Homer’s classic war story relevant for a new generation worn down by foreign military conflicts. As conceived and adapted by True Blood and American Horror Story star Dennis O’Hare with director Lisa Peterson, the tale of the nine-year Trojan War becomes a vehicle for a single, singular performer to shine for roughly 100 uninterrupted minutes. This production is blessed with two such performers: O’Hare as well as Tony winner Stephen Spinella (Angels in America), who switch nights in the role of the Poet and imbue the work with slightly different shadings of emphasis and style.
”Back then, oh I could sing it,” each begins, shuffling onto a mostly bare stage in an oversize coat with a battered old suitcase. ”Every time I sing this song I hope it’s the last time.” What follows is a more or less straightforward recitation of highlights from Homer’s Iliad (from the Robert Fagles translation), with occasional digressions (”Everyone always wants to hear more about Paris… but he’s not that interesting”) and some stabs at contemporary comparisons (there’s an offhanded joke about ”Athena tequila”).
The show is less a dramatic re-creation of the conflict between Hector and Achilles than a kind of glorified college lecture about Homer’s 3,000-year-old text. Given that the project originated in the middle of the last decade, when the U.S. was enmeshed in two wars that showed little sign of abating, it may seem surprising just how little O’Hare and Peterson have done to make An Iliad more contemporary and, well, relevant to modern audiences. Despite some theatrical flourishes (thanks to Scott Zielinski’s lighting) and the musical accompaniment of bassist Brian Ellingsen (performing as a ”muse” on a platform high above the stage), the show can occasionally be a bit of a slog. If you find your mind wandering, though, it won’t be for too long — and perhaps some classmates in your row will share their notes afterward.
An Iliad is more than a perfect night out at the theater for classics majors, of course. It’s a showcase for the acting skills of two accomplished stage veterans. Where O’Hare is broader, more sarcastic, and more inclined to crank up the volume for effect, Spinella tends toward understatement and a slow, steady build to big moments (and is perhaps more affecting as a result). Both performers seem to break down toward the end of the piece, recalling the list of cities and city-states that have been destroyed by war: Alexandria, Constantinople, Dresden, Sarajevo, Kabul. It is a moment that underscores the capacity for theater, and for storytelling, to move us. By giving voice to our past, by naming what we have lost, we give it power. B
(Tickets: TicketCentral.com or 212-279-4200)