By Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson
Based on Homer’s “The Iliad,” translated by Robert Fagles
Directed by Lisa Peterson
New York Theatre Workshop, New York
Opening night: March 6, 2012
Denis O’Hare, who has finally gained mainstream recognition playing a gay vampire on HBO’s “True Blood,” has long been one of New York’s most impressive stage actors. As evidence, see “An Iliad,” the adaptation of the Homeric epic that he co-created with director Lisa Peterson. The collaborators have distilled the book-length poem about the Trojan War to a 100-minute theater piece in which O’Hare (alternating performances with Stephen Spinella) takes on the guise of The Poet who has been telling this story for thousands of years. Once upon a time his telling would last for a month, then perhaps three or four days. With today’s attention spans, under two hours. But the story remains powerful, and the adaptors have done an excellent job of conveying the legendary battles between the Greeks and the Trojans in a way that remains up-to-the-minute vivid for a contemporary audience.
For example, early in “The Iliad” is a long passage about the gathering of ships that reads like a tedious, repetitive list, not unlike the “begat” sections of the Old Testament. But as O’Hare starts enumerating the number of soldiers deployed from different American states, we make the connection. The show gives the actor a gleaming opportunity to parade his chops, providing flash characterizations of famous warriors (Achilles, Hector, Ajax, Patroclus), kings (Agamemnon), beauties (Helen), and deities (Apollo, Hermes, Athena), with one musician on a catwalk (Brian Ellingsen on standup bass) above the stage supplying a keening, stormy sound score. The epic unfolds on a nearly bare stage with a few deceptively simple props and piles of crud (set design by Rachel Hauck) from which a vision of the world emerges (Scott Zielinski’s lighting helps tremendously). Near the end The Poet slips into a bravura recitation of all the major wars that link ancient Troy to Syria today. With this kind of show, there’s a thin line between giving a magnificently theatrical performance and shameless showing off. O’Hare, whose small frame contains a supple, commanding voice, knows how to stay on the right side of that line.