At Capital Rep, "An Iliad" spins a cautionary tale as old as time

ALBANY, N.Y. — The time and place for Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's "An Iliad" are described, respectively, as "Here." "Now" but it is the past that haunts every nook and cranny of director Margaret E. Hall's driving production at Capital Repertory Theatre.

Crafted by Peterson and O'Hare from Robert Fagles' 1990 translation of Homer's mythological epic, "The Iliad," "An Iliad" is a tale of folly, waste, brutality, destruction, waged in the name of honor; driven by lust, power, pride and the cruel whimsy of and callous rivalry among the gods.

Believed to have been written in the mid-18th century BCE, Homer's story is about class, privilege, heroism, treachery, vanity. It is about war and the toll of war; the destruction not only of human lives and property but also the moral fiber of nations.

Peterson and Hare weave passages of Fagles' translation into a decidedly contemporary narrative told by a figure known only as The Poet (David Barlow), who, despite his youthful vigor and contemporary look and style, clearly has been telling this story across centuries and civilizations.

War has been mankind's constant plague. At one point late in the play, The Poet runs off a list of all the wars that have been fought over time — many of them all-too-familiar; some not. Earlier, The Poet recites a roster of names average sounding American male names from average-sounding cities, towns and communities from average sounding states across the country as if top say "If you think this can't happen here, can't involve us, touch us in some way, think again. It can, it has."

But "An Iliad" is not only a cautionary tale about the narrow, self-serving interests and pride that leads to such calamity. Rooted in a mythology that is itself born of a narrative tradition, "An Iliad" is about the art and craft of storytelling and particularly the power of theater as a storytelling medium.

As it happens, Hall has in Barlow a skillful storyteller who commands the stage with his keen sensitivity to the dramatic rhythms, the peaks and valleys, of the story's dynamics.

He is, for the most part, his own instrument; his own source of resources. Bill Clarke's evocatively designed two-tiered set — lit effectively by Rachel Budin — is virtually barren save for a table, two chairs, mobile scaffolding and some ruins in the deep background and upper level.

Created essentially for one actor, Hall has introduced a second character, The Muse, played by cellist Kathleen Bowman who has composed an original score for solo cello which she plays live. And while there are moments in which her music is in harmony with Barlow's narrative — most memorably her underscoring for his recital of the long list of wars that have taken so much from so many, there are too many other moments — most unfortunately during The Poet's recounting of the titanic battle between Hector and Achilles outside the walls of Troy — in which her accompaniment is intrusive; more at odds with the moment than synchronous.

"Every time I sing this song," The Poet says near the beginning of "An Iliad," "I hope it's the last

time." At times of peace, it's a tale that warrants telling if only as a reminder of the depths to which mankind can descend if we are not watchful and even then ... . At times that are as precariously balanced as these, it's a tale whose urgency cannot be either overstated or ignored.

"Do you see?" is a rhetorical question The Poet poses periodically through his narrative. At times it is as if Barlow's Poet wants an actual response from someone in the audience. In the end, they will be the last words we will hear from him as he rushes off into the dark, the answer left suspended in silence.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212.


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