An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, based on Homer’s “Iliad,” translated by Robert Fagles. Directed by David Muse. Lights, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Laree Lentz. About 100 minutes. Through Jan. 13 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.
In Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad, a storyteller grapples with his conscience and the ugliness of human history. The indefinite article is important: rather than tell the definitive version of the Trojan War in all its heroics and death, the storyteller refines the tale so that we, his audience, can better feel what he feels. Through vibrant scene-setting and impressions of literature’s most legendary figures, the storyteller modernizes the war to the point where it could represent any conflict or tragedy. Peterson and O’Hare have an overtly political agenda, one that resonates even while preserving the core of Homer’s epic poem.
The storyteller (Scott Parkinson) wanders on stage and begins praying in Greek. He’s sinewy and weathered, like a drifter who spins yarns for food. Before he gets to Troy, he reminisces about the different versions he’s told over the century (Gaul couldn’t get enough of it, apparently). But before long, he uses modern analogies to help us understand the sheer size of the Greek armada. He respectfully, glowingly describes all the key soldiers – Achilles and Hector are the most important among them – before he sets the stage for battle. A musician with a cello (Rebecca Landell) wordlessly walks on stage, and her instrument colors the storyteller’s evocative language as he veers from world-weariness to bloodlust. With only crude props to provide sound effects, the storyteller delves headlong into the war. He crucially focuses on the death of Hector, and how his death inspires the war’s most important kindness.
The script requires more than mere performance from Parkinson. He must sell his experience with the Trojan War – his character implies he literally saw the battle with his own eyes – and make it sound as if the story is in his bones. He must modulate his voice so that we can distinguish between Achilles and Agamemnon, Paris and Helen. There are moments where the storyteller loses track of himself, so an imperfect performer is an important part of Parkinson’s character. His work is a towering success, one of the best at the Studio, because it utterly it is always immersive. When he gets lost in the lusty glory of battle, his face clenches into raw anger, and he looks almost hollow after apologizing for going off-course. Director David and Muse and lighting designer Colin K. Bills create a simple, atmospheric space, and the effects are haunting without calling attention to themselves. When Parkinson gets around to portraying Priam, Hector’s grieving father, somehow Muse and Bills find a way to make him appear older, frailer. Just like Landell’s accompaniment, which never develops into a complete melody, the team uses intense minimalism to amplify the storyteller’s depth of feeling.
The language of An Iliad is somewhere between conversation and lyric poetry. There are moments where he speaks with a formal sing-song cadence, and others where it’s as if he’s your bar buddy. The shift in tone is important since it is what gives O’Hare and Peterson a chance to have major changes from the source material. In a scene that would otherwise be too hokey, the storyteller interrupts himself so he can list off every major war from Troy onward to Syria. The deliberate way he defines history is the right set-up for An Iliad’s conclusion, however incomplete. Fed up, the storyteller cannot bring himself to bring us the gritty final details, and even though he explains himself, we can already know why it’s too much.