“How can I make you see?” James DeVita, in his awe-inspiring performance as the nameless poet of Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s An Iliad, asks this question again and again. A haunted, semi-mythic figure who seems to have witnessed the events of three thousand years ago, he visibly struggles to make sense of them to an audience for whom the name Homer is as likely to conjure the exclamation “d’oh!” as thrilling tales of bygone valor. But he does make us see.
Long before binge-watching on Netflix, epic poetry recited live was the chief form of entertainment: sitting around the fire while a lone bard stood, strumming a harp and declaiming some famous tale, the images unfolding in the audience’s minds through the power of the poet’s muse. The patrons were generally aristocrats who won their status by conquest, so tales of military might were favorite fare. Legendary warriors were sports heroes, superstars and royalty all in one. And if the poet could somehow link the hero with the local chieftain—well, the tips only got better.
An Iliad proves that it’s still possible for one performer to hold a crowd spellbound with a good story, and that the old saga still has the power to thrill and move us. But though there are episodes of ultra-violent, bone-crunching gore in the evening, co-playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare have placed their focus firmly to the tragedy rather than the glory of war. To bring it home, the designers depict the theater as a bombed-out ruin, collateral damage of some artillery strike, as if Milwaukee were Sarajevo, Baghdad, Homs, or any of countless other devastated cities. Director John Langs cunningly employs an arsenal of theatrical devices to keep our attention from wandering, introducing new elements every time we think we have the show figured out; accenting the narration with skillfully shifting lighting; props seemingly improvised from the rubble; and a restrained but spot-on musical score composed by Josh Schmidt and played on a rich, heartfelt cello by Alica Storin, who sometimes appears spectrally as the poet’s muse.
But really, it could be an empty stage, such is the power of DeVita’s performance to create characters, props, sound effects, and entire landscapes out of language. As it is, the evening flies by. We don’t hear the entire poem—nor could we, even in almost two hours (you want to run out and get Robert Fagles' dusted-off translation, on which the script was based): the poet brushes past some of the best-known scenes with “you’ve heard about that.” What we do get, though, makes us understand how the epic could inspire Alexander and Julius Caesar, and find its way to bookshelves from The British Empire to Mount Vernon. It’s far from being just a story about a big wooden horse: we witness fragments of a wild, weird cornucopia, postcards from the Bronze Age. Through the power of DeVita’s storytelling, moods wash over us like weather; bright images pop up like polished jewels; fresh and vivid: the pissing match between Achilles and Agamemnon, with thousands of lives in the balance; a touching encounter between the Trojan hero Hector with his wife and infant son on the battlements of their besieged home; a comic characterization of the girly-man Paris, who started the whole thing, but doesn’t fight; fantastic interventions by the gods; even an amazing description of Achilles’ shield, forged by the god Hephaestus, adorned with incredibly detailed engravings of scenes of battle and scenes of peaceful life: reminders of the warrior’s true purpose.
These fragments from the original didn’t make it into the script by accident; Peterson and O’Hare are clearly interested in war—but not its glorification. They pointedly do include the scene where aged Priam, defeated Hector’s father, risks his life by coming into the Greek camp and begging for his son’s corpse. In this famous scene, Achilles—best of all warriors, whose rage both fueled the crisis and won the battle—shows mercy to his hated foe’s father. The incident shakes the whole bloody epic with the power of compassion, and is one reason for its greatness. Here are the lessons of The Iliad for those of us who would love to bomb Iran, or who fill stadiums with fierce chants of “USA! USA!” The purpose of war is not to feel powerful, not to fuel the ego or to satisfy the primal need for death and danger; these are the perennial seductions of man’s testosterone addiction. The best warrior is the enemy of all that, his purpose, to revere peace.
Will An Iliad cure us of this addiction? Probably not. But it’s still the artist’s job to make us see it, feel it. This, the artists of the Rep’s production do, with consummate passion and finesse.
Adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare from Robert Fagles translation of Homer’s Illiad
Directed by John Langs
Starring James DeVita
Milwaukee Repertory Theater
runs through Sunday, March 23
Tickets begin at $20
414-224-9490 or visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com