A Thousand Ships

A lone man leans against a graffitied brick wall in a dingy sewage area in some unnamed city, a vagrant of sorts. According to the playbill of “An Iliad,” this man is the Poet, but the audience cannot know for certain his true identity. He could, potentially, be Homer (whoever that was…if he even existed), since the play is, after all, an adaptation of Homer’s epic. Or he could be an old man with a story to tell. But is he a contemporary storyteller, or some time-traveler from the past? Did he live to see the Trojan War, or the War in Afghanistan? Or maybe both? Maybe he is just  a madman on the street?

These questions are left unanswered in Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s compelling adaptation of Homer’s classic tale of the Trojan War. “An Iliad” tells the story of the last few weeks of the war, when the Acheans Agamemnon and Achilles are fighting over a woman, Briseis. Achilles loses Briseis and refuses to fight in the war. As the struggle within the Achean ranks unfolds, the war wages on outside the walls of Troy.

The story is recounted in its entirety by only the Poet, turning the performance into more of a storytelling event than a traditional play. And, as a result, the vivacity and emotional range of the storyteller comes to the foreground. But while the original poem–or at least the version known to modern readers–focuses on the triumph of Achilles, “An Iliad” centers the attention on Hector, the defeated Trojan warrior. This simple shift in perspective–from an emphasis the experience of heroism, success and glory to one of defeat and death–exemplifies the adaptation’s powerful underlying anti-war message.

The play begins with the Poet listing significant wars, from Troy up to the current conflict in Afghanistan. This serves to confirm what this adaptation’s title suggests: this is “An Iliad,” not “The Iliad.” It is about every “Iliad” that has happened after the first one, and the many more that are to follow still. The storyteller says that the war only went on for so long because both parties, having already put so much time into it, could not leave without some final resolution. The Poet attempts to put the story in twenty-first century terms. He equates this type of mentality to being stuck in a long grocery line: you can see that there is a shorter one, but you feel obligated to stay in your line because you feel as if you have invested something in it.

But Peterson and O’Hare use more than modern analogy, language and tone to make the story feel relevant. Above all, they bring the epic back to its original and most effective form: oral storytelling. Presented with one man recalling a story from his memory and imagination, the audience becomes a collection of listeners rather than spectators, establishing a rapport with the actor and the play itself.

An Iliad also returns to its ancient roots of oral tradition by incorporating the original Greek verse into parts of the play. The conglomeration of ancient verse, lines of Robert Fagles’ award-winning English translation, and colloquial speech to spice up the formal prose, was the most striking example of the play’s intermingling  of the ancient, the old, and the new.

When a tale is passed through the oral tradition, the story changes with the storyteller, the audience, and the culture to which it is loaned. The story itself is ancient, but an attempt to preserve every element of the original epic poem would lose the uniqueness and malleability of the present moment that is essential to the oral tradition. That is to say, an effective storyteller knows how to relate to his audience. Timothy Edward Kane does a phenomenal job of captivating the audience and performing the role of the Poet. He is not only a storyteller, but also an enigmatic, dynamic personality who, in retelling the epic, carries on Homer’s great tradition.

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through December 11. (773)753-4472. $40-60 general/$10 students. courttheatre.org

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