Arts theater review

‘The Iliad’ according to your bitter, well-oiled uncle

In this nearly one-man show, O’Hare trods well-worn storylines with an admirable energy

An Iliad
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Written by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson
Emerson Paramount Center
Nov. 20–24

Pulling off a two-hour one-man show is no mean feat, requiring endurance, a compelling character, and/or a killer storyline. When the storyline is one of the most familiar in existence, every other aspect of the production needs to pull its weight. The title An Iliad suggests that it will be a take on Homer’s epic, perhaps an unorthodox one, hopefully an insightful or surprising one. 

Previous adaptations of The Iliad serve a range of purposes and reflect their contemporary context. For example, several recent ones (the Hollywood film Troy, the comic book Age of Bronze and Colleen McCullough’s excellent novel The Song of Troy) attempt to inject more realism into the story by removing godly intervention, unlikely coincidences, and far-fetched plot points. Adaptations from the Middle Ages might find a way to insert discourses on courtly love, as in the story of Troilus and Cressida (de Sainte-Maure’s “Roman de Troie,” Chaucher’s Troilus and Criseyde). Giraudoux’s The Trojan War Will Not Take Place harkens to pre-WWII appeasement. The plays of Greek Antiquity (The Libation Bearers, Iphigenia at Aulis, Agamemnon, etc.) make parallels to the Peloponnesian War. 

Peterson’s production does little more than retell the story of the Trojan War until the death of Hector with acerbic, world-weary injections of general anti-war rhetoric. The narrator (Denis O’Hare) portrays a sort of vagabondish, itinerant storyteller who witnessed firsthand the events he is recounting. His clothes appear disheveled and it seemed as though he had procrastinated on bathing. As he gets warmed by the tale, he sheds layer after layer, cracking open his suitcase and a bottle of booze. His attitude is of one who has seen the world and has ever since been disappointed. Rather than going for sincere or expansive storytelling, O’Hare goes for a more derisive tone reminiscent of an intoxicated high school history teacher at a bar. He heckles the audience and points to individuals when he wants to make a point. He was successful in rousing laughter throughout the show, but whether from humor or discomfort, I was not always sure.

There is something magnetic about O’Hare’s pacing and intonation. It’s not what he’s saying that makes you want to watch him, but the way he stops and starts abruptly and prowls around the stage. You prick up your ears in a reaction to something unpredictable, something not quite safe. He is unstable, and yet you believe he must have seen the horrors he winces at, or else where does that crazed, haunted look come from?

There is little to no set design to speak of; rather, all manner of lighting equipment and theatrical paraphernalia are scattered in the background, as if the narrator literally strolled onto the stage while the stage manager wasn’t looking. What makes it not exactly a one-man show is the appearance of a single musician in the wings of the stage: a young lady puckishly playing a bass. The narrator often gestures to and addresses her, and the impression is that of a crutch. It is not clear whether she is meant to be the muse he invoked at the beginning of his tale. If so, the dependent, almost helpless looks he gives her could take on a more interesting dimension.

O’Hare’s performance is strong, and the interplay between the musician and the storyteller is a creative touch, but the material does not feel sufficiently novel in an era in which storytelling is no longer one of the main forms of entertainment. Anti-war sentiment permeates and adds unique elements to the production, like having the narrator reciting a breathless litany of almost every major conflict since the Conquests of Sargon, but it is not a cohesive enough thesis to carry the production to a higher plane.