Theater Review: “An Iliad” at Studio Theatre

A one-man adaptation of Homer’s epic feels only too familiar.
Scott Parkinson and Rebecca Landell in An Iliad. Photograph by Theodore Wolff.
Scott Parkinson and Rebecca Landell in An Iliad. Photograph by Theodore Wolff.

What a difference an article makes in
An Iliad, currently playing through January 13 at Studio Theatre. Adapted and loosely modernized
from Homer’s
The Iliad, the epic poem detailing a portion of the ten-year Trojan War, the titular “an” somehow
makes the story seem mundane, placing it squat in the middle of all the countless
other futile, bloodthirsty, completely wasteful conflicts that have gobbled up money
and young men since the early days of civilization.

Adapted by director
Lisa Peterson and actor
Denis O’Hare (who appears in the similarly gory HBO vampire series
True Blood) and directed here by Studio’s
David Muse,
An Iliad honors the source’s narrative roots. A lone storyteller, played with ferocious focus
by
Scott Parkinson, walks casually onto
Luciana Stecconi’s empty-ish stage from the street, clutching his suitcase and sporting a grubby,
rust-colored coat (times are hard for poets, it seems), and launches into a few verses
of ancient Greek before settling into his story.

And what a story it is. Homeric purists will find plenty to quibble with in this particular
adaptation, which focuses primarily on Hector and Achilles, barely mentioning Odysseus,
Helen, and Menelaus and dismissing Paris as the worst kind of drawling, effete coward
(imagine one of the Kardashians being drafted and you’re halfway there). Peterson
and O’Hare have whittled the story down into a 90-minute version which cuts out plenty
of the action, but the remaining plot feels surprisingly detailed. Much of this is
thanks to Parkinson, who describes the ringing of clashing swords and fields of dead
soldiers as far as the eye can see with a zeal that borders on messianic.

The language of
An Iliad gets a contemporary update, although much of Robert Fagle’s translation also remains.
“It’s always something, isn’t it?” says the poet dismissively about the origins of
the Trojan War, a decade-long conflict fought over nothing more than a woman. The
show also puts the war in context, comparing the tens of thousands of soldiers boarding
Greek ships to teenagers from Flint, Michigan, and other midsize American towns. At
one point, the storyteller lists every single major conflict in history, a monumental
reeling off of facts that feels both rote, like cramming for a history test, and singularly
sad.

The bleak, black stage on which the storyteller moves around is intentionally sparse,
and feels for all the world like a theater between productions (it’s tempting to think
there was no work done on the set at all, bar the installation of a strategically
placed ladder). If it weren’t for the cellist (Rebecca Landell) who joins Parkinson onstage, the only noticeable element other than the narrator
would be
Colin K. Bills’s lighting, which helps shift the mood and the story from scene to scene. Landell’s
music ranges from classically evocative to Hitchcock-horrifying, but it’s an effective
counterpoint to the sadder moments the storyteller describes: Priam’s bravery in searching
out his son’s body; Achilles’s implacable destiny.

Following on the heels of several other plays focusing on war (the brilliant
Black Watch and the similarly epic
The Great Game at Shakespeare Theatre among them),
An Iliad offers perhaps less harrowing insight into the horrors of contemporary conflict,
but its sigh of inevitability over this millennia-long habit of humanity is almost
more shocking. Although the play gets bogged down in an overlong description of a
grudge match between Hector and Achilles, its subtle comparison of meddling, fickle
gods and seemingly untouchable generals and lawmakers is worth seeing. Like Hector,
we too seem to be shackled fast by a deadly fate.

An Iliad
is at Studio Theatre through January 13. Running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Tickets ($39 to $61) are available via Studio Theatre’s website.

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