The More Things Stay The Same: “An Iliad”

Presented by ArtsEmerson: A Homer’s Coat Production In Association with Octopus Theatricals
Written By Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare
Based on Homer’s Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Starring Denis O’Hare
Bassist: Eleonore Oppenheim

November 20 – 24, 2019
Emerson Paramount Center Robert J Orchard Stage
Boston, MA
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Review by Shiyanbade Animashaun

(Boston, MA) In pre show moments, I wondered about the cluttered stage and oppressive light fixture prominently placed stage left. I worried that I would need to shield my eyes if it remained. Then An Iliad began and its purpose clarified with a wash of sound and light cues that left our star, Denis O’Hare, in its wake. One of many instances that proved I had no need to worry.

O’Hare began slowly, as a character charged to tell the tale of the Iliad and plagued by poor memory. He beseeches the muses, gods, alcohol, and in a great bit of crowd work, the audience. One yelled ‘Odysseus’ when asked for a character in the tale and O’Hare did a double-take, to the laughter of the crowd, said “Wrong story,” and moved on. At a later moment, when he prompted us for a champion to compare Achilles to, he paused amid the audiences’ laughter at the suggestion ‘The Rock’ and remarked with a smile that Achilles “was stronger, and cuter”.

In his intro he clambered about, resetting a sidelong chair and dragging a table forward. All while setting the context, and reminding us, more than once of the characters’ names. Once completed he started to stumble through his tale, misplacing locations and names. Then, a muse appears in the form of bassist Eleonore Oppenheim. Stern, as she regards him, then strides to a resting cello. As the cello swells, so does O’Hare’s character, with more confidence, and the story he calls a song takes shape.

Moments are taken to flesh out character wants and motivations, or to show conversations and inner thoughts. O’Hare embodies these masterfully,  holding conversations between characters with clearly altered facial expressions and intensities. At one point, distinguishing between Achilles and Agamemnon with changes in posture and vocal cadence.

The spoils of war and prizes that included women from enemy lines were neither glorified nor glossed over. At times, the storyteller interjects and breaks the fourth wall with his thoughts, “If this was all about Helen, why not give her back?” While recounting the death of Hector, and Achillies dragging his body behind a chariot, O’Hare asks the audience to recall or imagine a war scene. Starting from the battle in question, he lists historical wars and more, through and past World War One, in a rant-like tone, stripped of any previous warmth or lightness. Yes, Achilles’ act was a terrible thing. Yet more terrible things have continued to happen since that fabled Trojan War.

He speaks fondly of the moment Achilles pushes away his anger with Hector to show kindness to Hector’s father. Then ends the tale without ‘the part we were waiting for’. No talk of Trojan horses or,  what went along with it. The pillaging of a city, the death of a king, Hectors’ infant. The sexual violence and captivity. Again, a quick list is given in parallel, and when he ended with Sarajevo and Aleppo, some in the audience gasped in recognition.

Oppenheim ‘s emoting, and ferocious musical accompaniment of plucks and strikes on the cello and handpan was impressive, giving a canvas of indifference or intensity to O’Hara. The additional lighting and sound cues also enhanced O’Hara’s work. The rare death scenes in the play have mirrored accompaniment and staging, settling one into their gravity, with great results.

An Iliad is in immersive 110-minute journey that leaves the audience both amazed at O’Hara’s memory and brilliant ability, and wondering how familiar the motivations and actions of humans and gods written thousands of years ago seem in our modern landscape.

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