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.