Dallas — “Every time I sing this, I hope it’s the last time.”
Deep below Main Street on a drizzling Dallas night, a Poet meets us among the columns of a lost world, inviting us into that charmed space the ancient Greeks called a théatron, a “place to behold.” He has a tale for us, a bloody and heart-stirring story of men and women, gods and battle, grief, pride, and loss.
Behind him lie countless tellings to endless generations. He is ever on the road, never reaching a place of rest or peace, carrying rage, bitterness, and exhaustion as constant companions. But in the process of finding his art, he will lead himself (and us) through the dark with other things he’s picked up along the way—a rough and ready humor, an ironic take on life, an unflinching eye on human nature.
He is Homer the singer-poet, or one of the many who followed him—worn to the bone, wondering if humanity ever will decide we’ve had enough of war and ruination.
And he is spellbinding.
Undermain Theatre’s 2012 regional premiere of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s award-winning An Iliad galvanized audiences and became the company’s “most requested” show—the one everybody wanted to see again (Undermain remounted it at the end of that 2012-2013 season). And now it’s back, giving North Texas audiences another chance to see what the fuss was about. Returning for An Iliad 2.0 are the show’s original trio: Bruce DuBose as the Poet, in a one-man performance of breathtaking energy and empathy; Paul Semrad as the inventive Musician; and Undermain artistic head Katherine Owens directing with brains and heart.
But (you say) your last Ancient Lit class was: a) way back there, or b) never ever? The Poet brings us up to speed in one echoing sentence: “HELEN has been stolen, and the GREEKS have to get her back.” This is the story of their 10-year war with the city of Troy (remember the Trojan Horse that ended it?) over possession of the world’s most beautiful woman—stolen by a playboy Trojan prince from the house of her husband, the Greek king Agamemnon. And it isn’t just Helen he wants back—it’s his honor.
As the Poet would say—and does—“It’s always something.”
He lays the scene before us: thousands of young men pulled from the small towns of Greece (“We knew these boys!” he says bluntly) to fight in a foreign war that’s “nine years in, and nothing to show for it.” We smell the stench of bodies, and the smoke of the fires that burn them. We imagine the Olympian gods, lounging above the action, taking sides, changing the fates of men and women with a flick of their fingers or a puff of divine wind.
In the telling, the Poet is everywhere and everyone. He is Priam, the ancient king of Troy, with cracked voice begging the enemy for the body of his son. He is Hermes, a winged god making mischief. He’s the sardonic beauty Helen, and Paris, her feckless prince. He is Hector, the king’s son, a great warrior with a gentle soul—and Hector’s mother Hecuba, the wailing and bereaved queen who watches him die. He is Achilles the hero, larger than life and twice as angry at losing both his girl…and his best friend.
Of all the stories, brave Hector’s is the one that stings most. “Hector, breaker of horses,” the Poet calls him—who’d rather train a colt than take a life. He comes from a lull in the fighting to find his wife and baby son, then stares at them in silence, unable to speak. She begs him to stay home. He tosses the baby in the air, almost smiling, and goes out again. “Why is it so hard to describe a good man?” asks the Poet. And the gesture he makes thereafter, each time he speaks Hector’s name—elbow crooked, hand holding the reins of invisible horses—breaks our hearts.
Director Owens keeps a tight rein on the play’s slow build of momentum and intensity, as the Poet twists and weaves ever more urgently among the threads of his story. DuBose’ delivery of this mix of modern playwriting and Homeric poetry—filtered through Robert Fagles’ vivid, muscular translation of the Iliad— is electric enough. But the role is a physical and emotional marathon for the actor who takes it on. DuBose is the Poet pushing through exhaustion to keep moving through the ages—and also an actor doing the same, for every one of the play’s 100 nonstop minutes.
Whirling a spear like a baton-twirler, lunging at the enemy, quick-changing among a crowd of characters, running laps around the walls of Troy, picking the tune to an oddly “cowboy” lament (very Johnny Cash), DuBose’ Poet stops only here and there to step outside the action for a modern moment with the audience. Loping up to the edge of the stage, he looks us in the eye. “Give the girl back!” he cries. “Isn’t that what we’ve all been thinking?” But of course, the solution to this man-driven war couldn’t be as simple or sensible as that.
John Arnone’s fascinating set design (also revived from the original production) is an active presence throughout, a combination of schoolroom and living history museum: classroom blackboards are filled with lines of Homeric text, tables laden with ancient instruments and weapons. (Cheers also to properties maven Linda Noland.) Objects surprise us: a bronzed helmet momentarily becomes a baby; a circular drum (Semrad’s “music” includes sounds of all kinds) is moved gently, and we hear the sea. Designer Steve Woods’ low-slanting footlights amplify the Poet’s every action, with silhouette warriors fighting shadow-play wars along the walls and columns.
DuBose and experimental musician Semrad have a rhythm onstage, though they never exchange a word. Both play a variety of ancient and modern instruments tuned to Greek modes that are foreign yet intriguing to the ear. DuBose accompanies one of his chants on a small lyre; Semrad provides a jarring accompaniment on the devilishly difficult instrument called a water harp—its sound wailing, metallic, and hard to forget.
An Iliad is the first production of Undermain’s new Repertoire Series, a celebration of the “gems” of the company’s long history of theater-making in Dallas. Artistic director Owens thinks of it as an opportunity to give new audiences a look at some of Undermain’s best work—and to see what fresh artistic discoveries might spring from the company’s second “go” at a script.
Some plays and some productions are just too good to sit on the shelf.
An Iliad is one of those. Catch it if you can.