An Iliad Wrestles with Modern Questions in an Ancient Voice

Horse mannequin piaffe

Homer’s tale Iliad becomes a touchstone and a metaphor for all wars in An Iliad presented by the Willbury Group.

Theater is a collaborative experience, even if the end result seems centered on one person. Even a self-penned, self-designed (and, in this age of no-overhead marketing, self-promoted) piece needs extra eyes to ensure that ego does not trump ambition. Only a known entity can command an audience simply by showing up, and that’s why Gurney’s Love Letters exists. But, for one person to walk onstage and simply tell a story (and a classic story at that) for an hour and a half takes either celebrity of the highest order or a production vision that only a full-on collaborative team can see to fruition. Homer’s Iliad may not leap to mind as readily as A Christmas Carol, but with the appropriate scorecard in the program and a number of cultural touchstones (i.e., Achilles, the Trojan Horse, etc.) that most will recall, it’s not altogether impossible to remember the important plot points of the epic battle poem and, in the right hands, be enthralled by a dramatic retelling.

An Iliad, as the name suggests, is not a straightforward retelling of the Trojan War and its attendant (often supernatural) brouhaha, but a judicious blend of modern vernacular and topical references with the salient plot points of the original and a dash of ancient Greek to spice things up. The intention of the authors, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, was not to modernize Homer, but to use his tale as a touchstone and a metaphor for all wars and how a common thread binds endless generations of soldiers and civilians, regardless of where and when the battle is set. The device mostly works, and true to its form, comes across as much more engrossing as a live event; one suspects that, on paper, it may seem almost too precious for its own good. In this case, however, Wilbury Group and Director Clara Weishahn have delivered more than what is on the page and allowed what could be simply a tour de force opportunity for a local actor to be a fully realized production.

The local actor in question is Matthew Fraza, recently recognized for his directing talents with Epic’s Six Degrees of Separation as well as Mixed Magic’s finely tuned Zoo Story. Fraza is given the unenviable task of portraying The Poet, a ragged journeyman singing the songs of the epic battles, hoping that each retelling may be his last. The Poet is Bard, Fool and Barfly all wrapped up in one engaging package, bellowing out dactyls and spondees while buying the next round. “This went down well in Gaul,” he confides, surrounded by a set that is appropriately sweeping in its grandeur, resembling a ghost ship, with gauzy white sheets of fabric cascading over scaffolding recycled from at least two recent Wilbury productions. While the ropes and cloth promise movement and shape-shifting, they are mostly evocative set dressing aside from some spare business by The Poet, used to amplify certain points or serve as instant drag for Fraza’s amusing retelling of more feminine moments. All is white and earth tones and scenic designer Jacqueline Frole has matched Sylvi Re’s costuming to create an overall effect of earth and sky, where the gods meet lowly mortals. Matching the white of the fabric is the only other character in An Iliad, The Muse (Evan Lunt), almost angelic in his appearance, perched atop the scaffolding, mute save for his swooping cello underscores. So, while Fraza has the lion’s share of the work here, the overall effect is not of a one-man show, but of a play that supports the facile storytelling of an individual surrounded by ghosts and gods, heroes and corpses, music and all the elements of the universe. Jason Eckenroth’s lighting and sound design is subtle, but suitably supportive of Fraza’s verbal flights of fancy.

As we become more and more enmeshed in The Poet’s tale, the actual words, like much poetry, become almost irrelevant. Fraza explores peaks and valleys, a booming voice echoing off the cavernous walls of the Cultural Center only to end in a mesmerizing stage whisper. Like jazz, we know the basic tune, so we are okay being lost in Fraza’s riffing, secure in the fact that he’ll catch us up to the main theme before we all go over some circumlocutory cliff.

Weishahn does not allow Fraza to stay in one place for very long, and he is in constant motion throughout. However, when it counts, he is stock still and making sure to catch the perfect silhouettes provided by Eckenroth’s spare lighting. These are the moments when the vagaries of not just the Ilium campaign are brought to bear, but of how these mythic events relate to our own existence. The fact that soldiers from East Greenwich have gone off to far flung battlefields, never to return, has never been disputed, but not often given this context. Is dying for a lie in the desert any more or less ludicrous than a giant hollow horse?  There were no weapons of mass destruction and if they simply gave Helen back, no one would have had to fight and die. These ideas are all intertwined in An Iliad — that wars are based on the principles of pride, some inflated sense of honor, and often, just jealousy. A recurring motif here is the image of bodies piled up high, and while World War I is only briefly mentioned in a litany of all the world’s battles, the comparison of endless and futile trench warfare and the stagnation of Hector and Agamemnon’s armies cannot be unseen.

An Iliad is not a tale of heroic battle, as its source material is, but a painful tale that must be told to all who would listen in the hopes that each retelling will be the last. It’s “a blur of kills,” war after war piling up in the books, ensuring that the Poet and his grubby suitcase of bleak verse will continue to roam the land. The singer has become the song, and all of our empathy, in the end, is for him. For he is the only one singing the song of our fallen dead. Who will sing for Iraq and Afghanistan? Who will sing for Syria and South Sudan? Are these tragedies no less epic and the whims of the gods no less mercurial now as they were ages ago? The dots on the map may constantly shift, but the song remains the same.

The Wilbury Group presents An Iliad, through February 8 at The Southside Cultural Center, 393 Broad Street, Providence. Visit thewilburygroup.org for tickets and details. 

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