On foot and in full armor, a great warrior pursues another around the city walls. The chase unfolds in the viewer’s imagination as one storyteller describes the pursuer as never quite reducing the distance to the tireless fleeing man. The story is from Homer Iliad, but it gets modern and alive in the 2013 Weston Playhouse production of the play. An Iliad.
The play is not simply an orderly compression of an old epic poem in contemporary discourse. The storyteller, called the poet, addresses the audience directly, casually, with humor and expressiveness. The script takes a look at the heroes and horror of war with the prospect of centuries of battle. In a virtuoso performance as a poet, David Bonanno leads the audience into an experience of humanity’s relentless use of violence.
The poet enters in a dusty raincoat, a soft hat and an old shirt. His pants, torn at both knees, are held in place by a rope belt. He sinks into the rubble-strewn ground and sifts a handful of dust between his fingers. Then he sings, in Greek, the first lines of his tale with beauty and incantatory power. When he gets up and offers to tell us a beautiful story, the Poet explains: “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”
Its history is war. The events of the Iliad illustrate war and its mythical permanence in human affairs, to the pettiness and vain glory which motivate men and the interference of equally insignificant gods. Playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare revive, with powerful language, the cause and outcome of the battle between Hector and Achilles. Anyone who remembers the boredom of scratching off Homer’s plot points in high school will be awakened by the raw energy of a desperate conflict here.
The poet carries his song in memory but can no longer recover every name and detail. Keeping that story alive and telling it forever is her burden. Yet he continues, speaking informally, even intimately, like a friend connecting with every listener.
The poetry of the screenplay lies in the precision of the language, not in the grandiose or flowery images. Multiple characters are described and personified, their most human traits eclipsing all mythical ones. The narration brings the listener back to earth: a soldier in a nine year war who leaves a baby behind will return to meet a 10 year old, possibly to find his wife who has grown fat.
The poet brings humor and sorrow to us as he conjures up in a magnificent description everything from a jaw-piercing spear to the psychotic stubbornness of men who cannot risk humiliation.
War’s proximity to death almost demands that its stories be filled with a meaning that can be applied to life. The battle between the Trojan hero Hector and the Greek warrior Achilles is a colossal struggle, with each fighter determined to win and worthy of winning. And that’s the crucial part – there is no villain, just two heroes with some limitations and immense courage. Whether one of them dies tells us nothing, except that war destroys the best of humanity even if it is based on the worst.
The play is a cunning contradiction. It tells a moving story of war and warriors for a modern audience, revealing the character and depicting the action with fascinating intensity. And he places – ceaselessly – the horror of war at the center of history.
Eight young performers form a choir, appearing on stage or moving in the audience. Sometimes they are silent abstractions of the characters, but their main effect is to look at the poet with us. Moving with the clarity of the dancers, Nadia Belaouchi, Emma Diner, Sage Jepson, Daelynn Jorif, Gracee Street, Alexander Tan, Cole Thompson and Timmy Thompson add solemnity to the poet’s words, then sing when no words fit.
Bonanno is magnificent in the role of a lifetime. A monologue inherently tests an actor’s endurance, range and vocal capacity. Some actors are tempted to draw attention to the feat they trigger. Not Bonanno, whose performance is entirely at the service of the role and the ideas of the play. It holds the audience effortlessly by focusing only on the emotion of the text.
Bonanno immerses himself in the experience of the Poet. It gives the viewer the freedom to laugh and reasons to suffer, all without visible artifice. In a defining moment, Bonanno captures the rage that makes murder possible, a transformation as thrilling and cathartic as the theater. His mind-blowing performance never says, “Look at me”. He is extending an offer: “Feel with me.
Director Meredith McDonough staged the show with low-key movement, making every gesture count and integrating the chorus and music into the action. It’s impossible to say who contributed to what in this actor-director partnership, but it’s clear McDonough gave Bonanno the conditions he needed to excel.
Composer Jenny Giering has created moving music, ranging from mournful backdrops to gripping songs. Scenic designer Lex Liang used sandbags, wooden pallets, and junk scraps to convey timeless ruin and loss. To comply with the Actors’ Equity Association’s pandemic safety regulations, the show is presented under a marquee. Early evening natural light eclipsed Mark Barton’s inefficient lighting design, constructed from ground-level construction work lights and limited theater instruments.
Music director Yan Li plays the piano with wide, dynamic effects throughout the show, and he and Bonanno maintain an improvisational connection, like jazz musicians. The actors wear microphones, and the ambient noise of a summer night never disturbs. (Ask for a seat in the center, as those on the sides offer poor sight lines and glare from dim lights directed across the stage.)
Weston took the risk of welcoming the public again with an intense one-man show. But this demonstration of the tremendous power of performance to transport listeners with words alone and to anchor a story in their hearts, is exactly why audiences will come back. An Iliad is not to be missed.