In a world where immensely popular first-person shooter games give us all the potential to be living room warriors (who can always hit ‘restart” if our virtual soldier/self catches a bullet), what drama can still be wrung out by a storyteller sharing tales of an ancient conflict?
Plenty, as witnessed in “An Iliad,” Lisa Person and Denis O’Hare’s play being offered on the upperstage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre (through Nov. 16). In it, we are given a deeply edited—but surprisingly detailed—account of the Trojan War as filtered through a character with the soul of a poet but the eyes of someone who has seen far too many wars to end all wars. Calling it “An Iliad” rather than “The Iliad” not only indicates the decidedly non-epic scale of the production but also effectively contextualized the Trojan War as not the great conflict (as Homer, perhaps, saw it) but as just one of a history of them.
The acting battalion here consists of one man, Henry Woronicz (recently seen donning an ass’s head in the IRT’s joyful “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), who plays The Poet, who still hold much of Homer’s epic poem in his tormented head. It’s impossible not to applaud his passionate work here, holding our attention throughout the 90+ minutes. But at times, Woronicz calls to mind not so much Kevin Kline playing a part but Kevin Kline playing an actor playing a part. His is a performance that seems to underline, bold and highlight many of the key moments and characters. That approach keep the situations and conflicts clear—and may help school group attendees who have a quiz the next day—but leaves less room for the audience to bring its own feelings to the table, keeping “An Iliad” from being as emotionally engaging as it could be. The recitation of a litany of wars from then to now, for instance, feels more like an aria intended for applause rather than the piling of shameful weights on humanity’s shoulders.
While clearly anti-war (an easy position to take from a distance), “An Iliad” doesn’t pretend to have answers. It understands that flawed humans are at the core of these conflicts and that armies are made up of equally human beings whose names and lives will be lost to history.
For me, surprisingly the strongest image came not from Woronicz’s performance or the ancient words of Homer but from a design image—the shadow on the stage floor of a rotating fan—its sad, steady blades spinning and spinning and spinning.