Fort Worth — A man shuffles onto a stage littered with antique detritus and neglected odds and ends. A storm booms in the background and a leaky ceiling drip-drips into a lonely pail. The man lifts his arms upward and intones in Homeric Greek: μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος οὐλομένην. ("Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.")
He is a world-weary Poet (Jim Covault) here to recount Homer’s tale of bloodshed and battles in Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s theatrical adaptation, An Iliad at Stage West. In 2006, Peterson, an Obie Award-winning director, and O’Hare, a Tony Award-winning and Emmy-nominated actor set out to tackle Homer’s epic using the twin lenses of pacifism and war as fundamentally human.
Using Robert Fagles’ flowery, yet brutal translation, Peterson and O’Hare have crafted a solo show that is immersive and intimate (“much easier to discuss these horrors in a bar”) without seeming too pedantic or dated. It is “a good story,” as the Poet claims and director Emily Scott Banks and Covault do their best to deliver an experience that is thrilling, timely, and thought-provoking.
Covault, an actor more familiar to me for his brilliantly dry Jeeves roles comes alive through this poetic retellings of the last days of the Trojan War. The script is a rich tapestry of original language interspersed with soaring lyric, and modern colloquialisms (who knew Homer dropped f-bombs?). Covault, with some nifty pacing by Banks, brings all of these elements together with impressive skill. I only wish Covault would luxuriate a bit more with the poetry, but this will come with more experience with the intricacies of the language.
Most of the sequences will be familiar to those who remember their high school Homer. Peterson and O’Hare have added nods to more contemporary conflicts. A particularly moving sequence in this production (that might sound a bit too heavy handed on paper) has the Poet counting off battles and wars as he drops stones on the floor.
Cellist Jordan Jones-Cleaver is splendid as she creates the aural ambience of the show by playing Mark Bennett’s original music. Technical director Nate Davis (whose set design is excellent) facilitates those sounds; however, the use of body mics (necessitated by the score’s pedals and amps) is a bit jarring and unnatural in such a small space.
This production is still full of stirring stuff. It’s exhilarating and gritty, and will permeate your senses with the clamor of war and the bittersweet poetry that tragic strife evokes. We just have to listen.