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War stories: An ancient Greek walks into a bar in An Iliad

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War stories: An ancient Greek walks into a bar in An Iliad

A lengthy recitation of the world’s major wars would seem more numbing than dramatic, but as spoken by David Barlow in An Iliad, it becomes a frozen moment of pain as the fantastic events of ancient Greece are dropped onto the map of places like Syria and Iraq.

An Iliad retells Homer’s epic as you might hear it in a tavern – “Or ‘bar,’ as you call it,” says the Poet, as Barlow’s character is called, as he orients himself to his current locale. He’s a drifter with a suitcase and a bottle of gin, who greets us in Greek, then switches to English to begin the tale that will grip us for the next ninety minutes, but warning us, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”

O, but he’s more than mere poet. It’s one thing to sing of these mighty events, and quite another to fully inhabit, as he does, the characters thus presented. The angry hauteur of Barlow’s Agamemnon contrasts convincingly with the stubbornness of Achilles and with Hector’s boyish energy. Even the minor characters, like flighty Paris and good-ole-boy Patroclus, are limned with deft detail.

Homer’s Iliad described a mere few days at the end of the Trojan Wars; this version, presented by Capital Repertory Theatre, is similarly compact (though much shorter). It’s the story of Achilles and Hector, of course, but a larger story of gods, pride, horror, and jealousy, the last prompted in part by the kidnaping of Helen, she who was more beautiful than anybody – she who, when eventually we meet her, turns out to be a young, petulant opportunist.

So you’re in for a classic story (or song, as the Poet would say), and virtuoso work by an actor. But there’s another compelling element to this presentation. The Poet calls her his Muse, and she enters, silently, carrying the cello that assumes her voice throughout. Kathleen Bowman devised her score for this piece during rehearsals with Barlow, and the music reaches beyond our emotional defenses to render each heartbreaking turn all the more heartbreaking.

There are motivic aspects: Achilles and others have themes, although sometimes it’s a mere wisp. There are opposites: Some battle moments have a musical fury, but most of them have an accompanying wail, a painful almost-melody that vainly seeks resolution.

A description of Troy as it was before the war sounds alongside bright pizzicato, but to those pluckings are added sardonic glissandos when Paris comes into view. A limpid melody (back with the bow) illuminates a word-picture of the city’s fountains; a minor-key plaint seems to be the theme of the Poet himself.

Throughout all of which Bowman maintains an ambiguous presence, occasionally acknowledging the Poet’s glances but remaining, as I see it, more in the company of the gods. It’s as stunning a performance in its own way as the one that Barlow provides.

“Isn’t it funny how hard it is to describe a good man?” asks the Poet, as we move into Hector’s head, beginning our journey to the climactic confrontation. Yet it is that very complexity, the contradictory passions that can drive a reasonable person to kill, that makes the story all the more wrenching – compellingly illustrated with a contemporary image of road rage.

We meet Hector as he contemplates the mass of Greek ships in Troy’s harbor. But the anonymity of soldiers in uniform is undermined by the Poet’s observation that these young recruits might just as well have been swept from the streets of nearby cities and towns, kids you grew up with, heading for slaughter.

Nine years of war have brought us to this moment. “After nine years, they want to go home,” the Poet explains, but likens their remain to the stubbornness of a supermarket customer who sticks with a line moving more slowly than the one adjacent.

An Iliad is Margaret E. Hall’s mainstage directorial debut. As Capital Rep’s assistant artistic director, she has helmed educational productions for the company – including an earlier “Iliad” version – but her sure-handed work with this piece proves that we need to see more of her work.

Bill Clarke’s set has the look of a bombed-out building, grey and crumbling but with an unexpectedly working sink. A scaffolding unit on wheels provides access to an upstage second level and serves, on its own, as mountaintop or other high vantage.

Barlow-as-Hector observes the city from atop that scaffold, then leaps down as the lights change and he asks us, “Have you ever seen a front line?” The actor is rarely still; his tale is kinetic, and drives him at one moment to run the playing area’s perimeter like a madman, at another to leap into an empty audience seat and engage his neighbor in small-talk. And even in stasis he quivers with energy.

Barlow inhabits this piece as if his life depended on it, and, in a very great way, it does. As do all our lives. The battles he describes may be mythic, but the jealousy and greed that fueled them reveal a horrible side of ourselves that still persuades us to embrace murderous destructiveness, whether on an actual field of battle or in the language of ersatz health-care legislation. The enemy awaits.

An Iliad, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, directed by Margaret E. Hall, Capital Repertory Theatre, Through April 2

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