When actor Denis O'Hare calls An Iliad "an evening of old-fashioned storytelling," he's not kidding. The adaptation of Homer's Trojan War epic features O'Hare (True Blood, American Horror Story) onstage alone, offering a contemporary take on the literary and oral traditions of ancient Greece. The New York production premiered in 2012 and won an Obie Award, and this weekend it opens the 2014-2015 performing arts season for the Contemporary Arts Center.
"It's not The Belle of Amherst, and it's not Mark Twain Tonight!, those famous one-man or one-woman shows where somebody very nicely sits on a stage and tells stories," O'Hare says. "The story is pretty brutal, pretty violent and pretty hair-raising."
O'Hare's character, The Poet, narrates the action as the enraged Greek hero Achilles lashes out at his countrymen with wounded pride before directing his anger toward the Trojans. O'Hare changes from character to character, taking lines from Robert Fagles' late 20th-century translation of The Iliad. He also addresses the audience directly, relating details from the classical text to everyday moments of modern life.
In this retelling, O'Hare presents Homer's epic account of guts and glory as a cautionary tale. The Poet conjures the spirit of Homer as an eternally weary, wandering soul, who struggles to reconsider the senseless violence of the Trojan War within the context of all the bloody wars that followed.
"For some weird, magical reason, he can't die," O'Hare says. "He has to stay alive until he's fulfilled his function, which is to make this story unnecessary. He's whisked by the Muses, and he's plopped down into the theater, and he just starts telling the story, and he's been doing it ever since he first did it in 1200 B.C."
An Iliad originally was conceived by Lisa Peterson, O'Hare's director and co-writer. She approached O'Hare with the idea in 2005, when the United States was entrenched in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and O'Hare recognized parallels between those wars and the clashes of the Greeks and Trojans that Homer recounts. O'Hare doesn't believe The Iliad was meant to be an anti-war screed. He does believe, however, that Homer's depictions of ancient battlefields offer insights for contemporary audiences bombarded by news and images from military conflicts around the world.
O'Hare, a self-described antiwar activist, says he and Peterson were tempted to shoehorn their personal politics into An Iliad, but he says, "We're both broad-minded enough to realize that at the end of the day that wouldn't be interesting." Instead, the pair focused on reserving judgment and allowing one of Western civilization's most enduring stories to speak for itself.
"Even while Homer is celebrating the valor and nobility and bravery of the men, he's not shying away from the stupidity of the violence," O'Hare says. "As a way of solving problems, war rarely achieves much besides killing lots of people. That's not something that we drummed up. That's in the book. The book is rife with examples of useless violence."
An Iliad has garnered critical praise for its unique and inventive approach toward performance. Rachel Hauck creates a unique set for every production, pulling together objects that she finds on location to create an intimate environment that lends itself to storytelling. The show also features musician Brian Ellingsen, whose work on the stand-up bass pushes the action forward, just as "Muses inspired, cajoled and pushed forward Homer," O'Hare says. O'Hare and Peterson routinely make subtle tweaks to their script, updating current events or adding details specific to the city or place where they're performing.
"The Poet, he's not telling the story just to anybody," O'Hare says. "He's telling the story to this audience, in this place, on this night."
For O'Hare, the freedom and challenge to take liberties with his adaptation of Homer's classic tale was part of the project's appeal. It's also why O'Hare and Peterson decided to call their work An Iliad rather than The Iliad.
"We're humble enough to realize that this is one little window into a much larger whole," O'Hare says. "I think it would be difficult to draw one conclusion or one moral from The Iliad. It's such a complete snapshot of culture and people that it has many lessons."
This year, CAC's performance schedule highlights innovative approaches and experimental styles while maintaining polished, professional productions. In October, there's a concert by singer/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, who released her 11th studio album, Comet, Come to Me, earlier this year. In November, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sam Green presents and narrates a live documentary, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, a tribute to the architect and designer, with live music from indie rock trio Yo La Tengo. The season also includes the genre-defying play Now Now Oh Now from experimental theater group the Rude Mechanicals, and ReVUE, a dark vaudevillian fantasy piece from the contemporary dance company Sidra Bell Dance New York.