It is insane when you think about it. Greek Literature features some of the juiciest plots you could wish for : “He what? He murdered his dad and married his mother? She killed Jason's fiancée and then she did what? They baked what in a pie and fed it to who? Oh. Dear. God.” And yet when you see these provocative tales acted out, you could count the truly effective productions on one hand. If you’re lucky. Yes, some are better than others. But rarely do you see a drama or film in which this flabbergasting content matches the execution. Undermain Theatre has avoided some hazards of staging classic Greek narratives in their current production of An Iliad. Notice the unorthodox choice of article. Rather than claim that it’s THE Iliad, they take a more casual approach, thus making the material more accessible. This version of The Iliad is adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, from the Robert Fagles translation of Homer. There is a single storyteller, billed as The Poet (Bruce DuBose) and a musician (Paul Semrad).
An Iliad is Homer's epic poem of the Greek siege of Troy (following Helen's "abduction" by Paris) around the 12th Century B.C. It transpires during the last few weeks of the war, and focuses mainly on the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, who has "won" Helen in a competition. The war itself has dragged on for so long that many of the soldiers have forgotten what they were fighting for, while Achilles withdraws from the action himself, praying to his mother, the goddess Thetis, for assistance in avenging the insults he has endured at the hands of Agamemnon.
When you enter the theater, Linda Noland’s stage design catches your eye. There are several long tables, strewn with various exotic instruments (Dubec, Wind Gong, Mijwiz, King David’s Lyre, Water Harp) chalk boards inscribed with Greek writing, a couple of electric guitars…as if in preparation for a lecture. The Poet wears a suit and tie, not formal, but not nonchalant, which he will gradually strip down to a wife beater, again, echoing this theme of simplifying lofty rhetoric to its primal core. Undermain takes an erudite piece and transliterates it to its essence, the professor becomes the blue collar versifier at the pub, grappling and groping to make the experience as authentic as possible. Ironically, possibly one of the best known of all epics, The Iliad doesn’t necessarily glorify the valor and heroism of battle. On the contrary, a fatal blow is struck by a neophyte, the father of a vanquished warrior begs the enemy’s leader for a decent burial, Achilles lets his lover, Patroclus, impersonate him on the battle field. Less of the outcome seems to depend on cunning and bravery than the petty whims of gods and men.
DuBose puts on an impressive, hypnotic performance, accompanied by Semrad. Like a gifted lecturer, he often seems to be flying by the seat of his stylish trousers: impulsive, tangential, witty, untethered. He makes such sophisticated, inspired use of the pipes, drums, gongs, guitar, and he’s not above hopping on a table. When he compares the homicidal impulse to an escalated case of road rage, you think, “What the hell is he doing?” But it works, because he’s so completely in the moment, he’s so utterly submerged in the actuality of the scene, you go along. There’s deep pleasure in watching DuBose, because he’s not afraid to go where the material takes him. He can be fluid, digressive, hammy, hokey, earnest, mocking. He trusts his instincts, and generally speaking, it’s an excellent strategy. It’s rare to see a theatre like Undermain, with the acumen and vision to understand you don’t need elaborate production values to create a valuable, vicariously rich experience. Sometimes the most scintillating sorcery can come from a simple spell.
Undermain Theatre presents An Iliad, playing September 26th-October 27th, 2012. 3200 Main Street, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-747-5515. www.undermain.org