Even if Homer's epic poem "The Iliad" is not prominently placed on your bedside table for reading just before you sleep, you should make an effort to see the Studio Theatre's extraordinary one-man play, "An Iliad," created by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare and based on Robert Fagles' translation of Homer's original.
That production, intelligently directed by David Muse, follows Homer's view of the Trojan War, the 10-year-long battle between the Greeks and the Trojans that involved a pantheon of gods, goddesses, mythological figures and human heroes, while making that war relevant to today's world.
|Where: The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW|
|When: Through Jan. 13|
|Info: $39 to $61; 202-332-3300; studiotheatre.org|
"An Iliad" begins with the entrance of the poet, Homer (Scott Parkinson), who wears a ragged shirt, vest and slacks. He begins to remember: "Back then" when he could sing his poem for long periods. He runs through a litany of places where he has had success with his poem; he begs the Muses for some help. Exasperated, he reflects that there is always a cause for the brutality and madness of war: pride, honor, jealousy, Helen of Troy. "It's always something," he says.
Finally, the Muses relent and help Homer paint a picture of Troy, with countless Greek ships and men waiting in the harbor to attack the Trojan capital. Then, just as suddenly as this picture is created, Homer undercuts it to remind us of American troops at war: "I knew these boys," he says, picturing them coming from Ohio, Kansas, Brooklyn, all across America.
Then he's back to the Trojan War again, to the Greeks who have been at war so long they've "forgotten why they're fighting." Peterson and O'Hare cleverly use the structure and characters of "The Iliad," but they leave out a great deal of detail in order to streamline the action into a clear-cut fight between Achilles and Hector.
The success of "An Iliad" rests on the lean structure of the writing and on David Muse's crisp direction. Most importantly, its success comes from Parkinson's passionate acting, which allows him to play not only 11 parts (male and female) but also to empathize with his characters as he crystallizes their personalities.
Near the end of "An Iliad," Parkinson recounts a massive number of wars, major and minor. The list is astonishingly long. It underlines Peterson's and O'Hare's reason for writing and for making their Homer say, sadly: "Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time."