Review: 'Iliad' at the Long Wharf Theatre

  • Noah Golden, Associate Connecticut Critic

Long Wharf’s “An Iliad” is theatre in its oldest and most distilled form. One performer, with only a simple costume and a handful of props, recounts a complicated story that is, to borrow a phrase from a very different kind of entertainment, a tale as old as time. It may sound simple, but it’s not. “An Iliad” is a captivating, thrilling, chilling piece of theater that is unlike almost any I’ve seen before.

The Poet, as the character is called in the program, tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus, of Hector and Paris, of Helen and Hecuba. It’s a bloody tale with meddling Gods and flawed humans. It’s the story of the Trojan War, but in this retelling by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson (based on Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer), historical or literary accuracy isn’t the point. This story is being told at this moment in time for a particular reason.

Before we get to the city of Troy, The Poet arrives on stage carrying a set of trendy luggage. In the original incarnation of “An Iliad,” which ran Off-Broadway in 2012, the Poet was played in rotation by Denis O’Hare and Stephen Spinella. Here, though, The Poet is Rachel Christopher, an African-American, millennial woman (so is the director Whitney White). It doesn’t shift the narrative as much as you may think, perhaps not quite enough, although the casting is nevertheless inspired. Dressed in a white dress and long black coat – one part Ancient Sparta and one part Madison Avenue – she begins effortlessly chatting to the audience in the way one does with someone you’re stuck in line with at the airport. But it’s clear she’s frustrated, both by the radio silence from her muses and the infinite, Sisyphean loop she is trapped in. “Every time I sing this song, I hope it is the last time,” she says. But it seems her fate to recount the horrors of war, again and again, the carnage that she ostensibly witnessed firsthand. Despite her hesitancy, The Poet begins the story without much prodding and with vibrant, theatrical aplomb. What else can you do when you find yourself in front of an audience?

Christopher, who looks reminiscent of “Ragtime”-era Audra McDonald, has big, expressive eyes and a commanding but personable stage presence. She’s modern but timeless, funny and at ease with herself. Emotionally ripe but guarded, until the flood gates of grief and resentment bubble over in the play’s best moment. Her continuous dialogue (the play is, with one exception, a 90-minute monologue) never feels stagey or recited. It’s the kind of rare, mesmerizing, bravura performance that really deserves the eventual standing ovation.

The story she tells is sometimes hard to follow, especially if Ancient Greek lore isn’t your area of expertise, but that isn’t exactly a problem. Christopher is such a gifted storyteller, contorting her body and voice to inhabit a multitude of different characters, that the emotional truth and deeper meaning of these stories are never lost.

Under White’s inventive direction, Christopher prowls the set (by Daniel Soule, think a rock-concert-in-Kabul-by-way-of-Sparta) in a succession of striking tableaus. The Poet huddled on the floor next to a flickering fire. A conversation with an empty Greek helmet, Yorick-style, bathed in Kate McGee’s fluid lighting. The Poet writhing in orgasmic rage mid-battle. It’s beautiful work from White, if not a little overly ambitious. I wish she sculpted the character of The Poet as finely as she does The Poet’s tale. Even with the text unchanged, she could have brought out more subtext into her eagerness to tell this painful saga and why that story feels so personal. She could have set up more of a connection between her and The Muse (Trojan hipster Zdenko Martin) who provides live electro-rock underscoring. Perhaps most missing is a coda at the play’s end where The Poet returns to her natural state, claims her symbolic luggage (the airport theme is all but forgotten after the first 15 minutes) and departs. The last quarter packs a considerable wallop but the final image, as stunning as it is, doesn’t entirely complete the circle.

That attention to detail could have given “An Iliad” a slightly richer emotional resonance, but should not diminish the thoroughly successful work already done. Peterson’s and O’Hare’s script finds the perfect balance between classical and contemporary, peppering the ancient tale with modern anecdotes (“you know when you’re at the supermarket…”). But the humor slowly dissolves into the pain and desolation of war. In the play’s most best segment, The Poet starts a sentence with “I remember one time during the Conquest of Sumer, I mean the Conquest of Sargon…No, the Persian War” and goes on to systematically list all the major world conflicts since, starting with the Peloponnesian War and ending, in the here and now, with Syria. It takes her almost five minutes without more than a breath between wars. It’s a moment that vacillates between mourning and flagellation for her and the listeners. The list growing and growing in a seemingly unending succession of human suffering. The waste, the futility, the grief – they are all in The Poet’s crescendoing, desperate cries, which left the audience in rapt silence (and me with full-body goosebumps). You barely noticed that the house lights faded on during the list, making us all a part of the narrative.

It’s confrontational and brash and heartbreaking and one of the most memorable sequences I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s where, after quips and myths and bronzed heroes, the playwrights and performers lay their cards on the table. Violence begets violence and we, like The Poet, are stuck in a repeating pattern from Thebes to Iraq, Troy to Charlottesville. There are still young people forced to fight in conflicts they barely understand and spouses waiting agonizingly at home. There are still slaves and masters, kings and commoners. This Iliad (notice it’s not billed as “The Iliad”) reminds us that the things which drew the Greek heroes to war – greed, anger, power, sex, xenophobia, revenge, classism – are what still drives our demise so many centuries later. Having a Black female as our narrator – telling a story where women are rarely more than props – can’t help but highlight the toxic masculinity that has undone so many civilizations and the role survivors (especially ones of marginalized populations) have in preserving their culture by storytelling. As another poet once said, we have no control who lives, who dies, who tells our story. This poet might add that only in telling our story can we begin to break the cycle. If only someone, anyone, would listen.

“An Iliad,” adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, translation by Robert Fagles and directed by Whitney White, runs through April 14 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT. The cast includes Rachel Christopher (The Poet), Zdenko Martin (The Muse). The creative team includes Daniel Soule (set design), Andy Jean (costume design), Kate McGee (lighting design), Lee Kinney (sound design), Whitney White and Zdenko Martin (music), Kelly Hardy (production stage manager) and Michelle Lauren Tuite (substitute production stage manager). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.