Forget “special effects.”
What makes “An Iliad” magic is the way it serves up the story as if it is a multi-course banquet, so that its splendors are revealed individually, as each person in the audience tastes and digests its substance. "An Iliad" is powerful precisely because its special effects are created directly in the minds and hearts and imaginations of the audience.
Friday night, Performance Network Theatre officially launched its new season – described as “Epic. Intimate. Theatre.” – with the original epic, a contemporary retelling of Homer’s “Illiad” adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare.
This mesmerizing one-man dramatization features a masterful performance by John Manfredi as the Poet himself. His tragedy is at once personal and universal. Doomed by the gods to repeat his tragic tale throughout the ages… pleading that each telling will be his last… and knowing that his lessons will be forever unlearned, with the violent consequences revisited upon new, war-beguiled generations.
This is storytelling at its finest – storytelling the way it must have felt when the bards, poets and seanachies carried forward the oral tradition that preserved a treasure trove of western legends.
Manfredi has the stage to himself, but he is never quite alone. The Poet waves his arms, and we see the sophisticated city of Troy, hear the music of its fountains, smell the Aegean. Hector stands high on the palisades. The Poet points out over the audience, and we see, with Hector’s eyes, the Greek armada – hundreds of ships, filled with tens of thousands of young men. Nobel Achilles. Loyal Patroclus. Thunder peals. And we sense their doom.
Tim Rhoze, who worked with Manfredi on PNT’s production of “K2,” understands exactly how much of the story to “show” us, and how much to leave to our imaginations. Rhoze is supported by a brilliant design team. Scenic, props and costumes are designed by award-winner Monika Essen, whose set recalls an old sewer entrance. The Poet must crank an archaic manual generator to illuminate the work lights scattered about the space and to power up the old portable turntable set on a makeshift table. There is rubble in the dimly lit corners – broken bricks, fallen plaster, lumber. And other things. Rags? Rats? We don’t really want to know. But we recognize stacks and stacks of vinyl LPs, looking very much like the broken columns of a razed city.
The sound and lighting design (Andrew J. Hungerford) surrounds us with the sense of another presence – perhaps the ancient gods … or the muses … or a Greek chorus. Monstrous shadows mock the Poet’s every gesture or obscure his face like a tragedian’s mask. We hear the steady drip of leaking water, punctuated by the thunder of angry gods. The Poet appeases them, and us, by playing his LPs to set the various moods for each part of the story.
The general effect is immersive – like slipping gradually into a dream. “An Iliad” unleashes the true alchemy of the dramatic arts – theatre distilled down to its most essential and potent elements.
This production easily merits the “not to be missed” list.
John Manfredi can be seen in “An Iliad” at Performance Network Theatre through October 27, 2013 with performances on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and matinees on Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets prices range from $22 to $41 and can be purchased online, by phone (734-663-0681) or at the Performance Network Box Office. The theatre is located at 120 East Huron St. in Ann Arbor; the Box Office is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m.to 6 p.m.