By Emma Krasov
Known as a risk-taking revolutionary theatre, Berkeley Rep excels at intimate productions rich in compelling writing, strong directing, and masterful nuanced acting all of which usually compensate for the lack of lavish sets, costumes, and additional performers on stage where quite a few actors perform multiple roles.
An Iliad, adapted from Homer (translation by Robert Fagles) by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare and directed by Peterson, is one of these sparse yet very intense productions, however the threadbare premise starts with the play itself. In the no-intermission show, there is only one silver-haired actor (Henry Woronicz) dressed in “homeless veteran” garb, on a bare stage with black backdrop and creatively manipulated lighting, plus one virtuoso bassist (Brian Ellingsen) on an elevated side platform. The latter totally wins the audience over, but apparently is not the main character, and was not even intended by the co-authors to be in the play according to the original plan.
According the original plan, as Peterson pointed out in an interview conducted by a theatre’s resident dramaturg, the play was conceived in 2003 when “we had just invaded Iraq,” and when Homer’s three-thousand-year-old poem was supposed to conform to an appropriately politicized and contemporized message.
The message has been honed and boned, and embellished and emphasized in every each way, but remains single and abundantly clear: WAR IS BAD.
In delivering their message, the co-authors resort to pure agitprop methods, like listing all the wars known to this sorry human race, calling some of them “invasions,” but only those initiated by “us,” not the ones initiated by the unmentionable others. Well, it comes as no surprise that agenda-driven political plays come with imbedded political correctness. (Who knew it would go so far as to defy the very freedom of thought and morph into self-censorship?)
Forget that old Greek catharsis that the theatre is supposed to grant you through the revelation of life’s mysteries and human soul’s hidden truths; forget that old Shakespearean character development through convoluted onstage interactions; forget the all-time miracle of live theatre reaching out to its audiences with an undying demand to suspend prejudices and revise core believes. Unless, of course, you think that war is good, and then An Iliad will come as a revelation to you, but thinking that way you are most likely not anywhere near Berkeley anyway.
So, the strong and very clear message WAR IS BAD is given to the sole actor for a rather trying deliverance. Just memorizing all those lines from Homer/Fagles and then some from Peterson/O’Hare is quite an undertaking. Besides, the actor has to present so forcefully and so unstoppably so many various characters that sometimes it seems that some of the depictions are way too superficial and just playing into the co-authors’ agenda without much psychological analysis. Come to think of it, making the actor say, “Paris is not interesting” doesn’t cut it. Whatever happened to show-don’t-tell? If this elementary school requirement had ever made sense anywhere, you’d think it would be on stage, no?
And so, the actor is working very hard, working full-time, working non-stop – very much aided by the amazing musical performance from the bassist – but still being completely engaged with the endless monologue with multiple repetitions of the message, the message, the message – in so many co-authors’ words on top of reliably self-sufficient Homer’s classic translated by Fagles.
With this kind of material, the actor is put in a position of a circus acrobat admired for his stamina, agility, and skill, but not for the depth of psychological penetration into the psyche of another…
At the show opening to the full house last week, Mr. Woronicz and Mr. Ellingsen enjoyed a well-deserved standing ovation. A co-production with La Jolla Playhouse, An Iliad was brought to life by Rachel Hauck (scenic design), Marina Draghici (costume design, Scott Zielinski (lighting design), Mark Bennett (original music/sound design), and others.
An Iliad runs through November 18, and is accompanied by special events:
Post-play discussions moderated by theatre professionals after the 8:00 PM shows on Friday, October 26 and Tuesday, October 30.
Post-show talks with Berkeley Rep’s docents matinees.
Free 30-minute docent presentations at 7:00 PM every Tuesday and Thursday evening.
Individual tickets to An Iliad start at only $29. Additional savings are available for groups, seniors, students, and anyone under 30 years of age – discounted tickets can be obtained for as little as $14.50. The Thrust Stage is located at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley.
For tickets or information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit: www.berkeleyrep.org.
Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com: Henry Woronicz and Brian Ellingsen in Obie Award-winner Lisa Peterson’s new version of An Iliad.
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