News Column

'An Iliad' tells an old, old story

May 27, 2013


May 27--The poet enters the theater through the door, the same as any member of the audience. The cuffs on his wrists are bronze and leather; the cuffs on his trousers are stained with mud. He lights candles and incense; he signals a nearby musician; he begins to sing.

Well, not sing, exactly. Chant. Intone. Pray. As the poet (and the entire cast) of "An Iliad" at Upstream Theater, actor Jerry Vogel assumes an enormous task. He must take us back to an ancient version of theater, a time before generic boundaries took hold.

Theater and worship, for example, weren't distinct from each other; for that matter, history wasn't separate discipline so much as one more element of the public assembly where the actor/priest reminded his community of its past, its beliefs and its duties.

Adapted for the stage by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare from Robert Fagles' translation of Homer's epic, "An Iliad" trades in a story that goes back to those distant days. By casting Vogel as the poet, director Patrick Siler gives his production of "An Iliad" an extra shot of authenticity. After many years performing in theaters here, he is recognizably a member of our community -- yet set apart from it, on the Kranzberg's tiny, elevated stage.

Yet Vogel climbs down often to walk through the audience -- making eye contact with a woman, patting a man on the shoulder, occasionally posing a question to the audience at large. (Different theatergoers handle that different ways, including some who opt for "out loud.") It's an extremely intimate approach to performance, especially if the audience is small.

Of course no one really longs for a small audience. But it seems just right for Siler's minimally styled production, with Patrick Huber's simple set and Joseph W. Clapper's stormy lighting design. Farshid Soltanshahi, composer and performer of the music, helps bring dramatic structure the involved story of the siege of Troy.

"An Iliad" runs one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission, which verges on audience abuse. In other respects, however, Peterson and O'Hare show excellent manners to modern theatergoers. Their poet explains the arcane (who is Agamemnon, anyway?), alludes to the familiar (that horse, loaded with Greek soldiers) and makes connections between this war and its many successors.

Vogel gives a superb performance, tucking into his role as the poet many memorable sketches of Homeric figures. Vogel and Siler even manage to fashion effective two-character scenes: the Trojan prince Hector and his devoted wife, Andromache; Hector battling his great foe Achilles; Hector's aged father, Priam, begging Achilles to return the body of his son.

These "Vogel plus Vogel" scenes aren't theatrical stunts, any more than it's a stunt to take more than one part when you read a story to a child. With just a few precise, efficient strokes, Vogel delineates the characters who people this vast story-- and then he returns to the poet, a man who knows the inevitable outcome and must relate it, time and time again.

In one of the most moving moments, Vogel recounts many of the wars that have been fought since Troy, from other ancient Greek battles to Syria's current turmoil.

As he goes on and on, the sheer effort of speaking seems to batter him, until he can't stand up. No wonder he has to bury his face in his scarf; we understand that he has to wipe away something. But what is it? Blood? Sweat? Or tears?


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