New Review: Iliad: Book One

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For Back Stage. Here’s the review:

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If you read The Iliad in college, you may react to the notion of it being performed live with curiosity and fear. After all, it is an epic. That it’s a foundational text of Western thought makes it tempting to picture on stage, but it also conjures up images of a massive Trojan horse lowered from the rafters amid Andrew Lloyd Webberish music.

Director Peter Meineck, it turns out, sees the stage as The Iliad‘s natural home. In a program note, he states that Aristotle imagined Homer “acting out” the voices and mannerisms of certain characters. Thus, Aquila Theatre’s mounting of Iliad: Book One — in a translation by Stanley Lombardo, a renowned classics professor at the University of Kansas — has a distinctly theatrical whiff. At a lean 75 minutes and staged inventively but with little more than large Tupperware bins for set pieces, the piece is clearly but a sliver of the ancient Homeric saga. It’s perfect for academic situations – it’s part of the Page to Stage program of the National Endowment of the Humanities – but also nourishing for regular theatregoers hungry for a classic nibble.

It tells the story of Agamemnon (Nathan Flower) battling Achilles (John Buxton) for war spoils some nine years into the Trojan War. Agamemnon’s prize spoil is Chryses (Jay Painter), the daughter of Apollo. Well, perhaps father knows best: When Apollo entreats Agamemnon to give up the girl and Agamemnon refuses, Apollo rains plague on them all, heightening Achilles’ antagonism. By Lombardo’s pen, there are different flavors of poetry (“Achilles chest was a rough knot of pain”), while Meineck’s production offers a banquet of atmospherics, including slow-motion stage-combat sequences, Desiree Sanchez’s stylized movement, and especially Anthony Cochrane’s tyrannizing music.

Much of the narrative is conveyed as story theatre – meaning the actors, as actors, tell the tale. Other times they play characters like Patroclus (Jeffrey Golde), Calchas (Natasha Piletich), and Chryseis (Vaishnavi Sharma), as well as choral and ensemble parts. Flower and Buxton are exceptional; the rest of the cast vacillates between the empathetic and the hammy. There are times you can tell the piece is meant to instruct as well as entertain.

Could Meineck avoid all visual allusion to the Iraq war? Nope. Lombardo’s last line, said by Achilles, is “I won’t lift a finger in this bloody war,” and it’s a very agitprop moment. Still, having wrested action from the ancients, he might as well be forgiven for bringing the story home.