When was the last time two fingers walking across a table ledge became a landscape, a battlefield, and a warrior in pursuit? And you could feel the suspense of a man destined to die? Feel awe at the beauty of such simplicity?
In Berkeley Rep's An Iliad, the antiquated story of the Trojan War is dusted off and the ancient tradition of the storyteller is reanimated. In this artful production, language is a demigod with the power to weave stories that transcend centuries.
Last week, I slammed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson because, among other things, its method of contemporizing its story lost pretty much everything in the translation. But this take on Homer's ancient text shows that a buttoned down update can work terrifically. Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's adaptation of Homer's epic story speaks with maturity in the language of today.
The adaptation, with a translation by Robert Fagles, makes the subject relevant with an informal but poetic narrative. The script's contemporary language and references are not gratuitous. This is An Iliad told with urgency, with the purpose of getting its modern audience to care about what happened long ago and far away, because we share a common humanity -- and because war still exists and because the spoken word can still be very effective.
Henry Woronicz plays a grizzled storyteller, a poet who tells these legends as if he were reporting back from the battlefield. "Every time I sing this song I hope it's the last time," he says as he prepares to start. The passing down is his duty and it takes a lot out of him.
Rachel Hauck's set design is minimal, allowing the poet to set the stage with hundreds of ships and thousands of men. He sees the enormity of the scene and repeatedly entreats us to see it, too. Do you see? Do you see? He asks. "This is what the war looks like."
Brian Ellingsen is the poet's muse on a perch with an upright bass; the instrument is a character conjuring the rage of Achilles, the intensity of the battlefield and the serenity of Troy. Marvelously, the bass invokes a variety of personalities.
Director Lisa Peterson deftly employs a few more performers: shadow and sound. Floodlights on Woronicz cast daunting shadows behind him, which become mighty warriors and gods. The sonorous echo of reverb on the mike is the voice of the gods. The poet's voice channels theirs.
War is hell. It is also tedious and this monologue grows tiresome at points. Battle scenes are described in detail. Backstories are reinacted. The characters mentioned are many and their long and complicated histories are hard to follow at times. And over-told. Certainly, the story-teller is long-winded.
But his rambling old-timer yarns sometimes serve a rhetorical function. The script effortlessly collapses the Trojan War with other, more familiar wars. As the poet describes the scores of soldiers on the ships, their faces and names shift; these young men are from Ohio farmlands, Springfield, Illinois, The Florida Panhandle, Brooklyn, and Berkeley. The storyteller rambles like a senile man who often loses his thread, an ancient who has lived a thousand years and knows this story has been told before and will be told again.
An Iliad runs through November 18, 2012 at Berkeley Repertory Theater's Thrust Stage, 2015 Addison Street in Berkeley, CA. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org or call (510) 647-2949.
All photos courtesy kevinberne.com.