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Review: ‘An Iliad’ at the Undermain Theatre

by Jerome Weeks 1 Oct 2012 5:49 PM

The Undermain’s An Iliad downsizes Homer’s vast war song, his epic of rage and Bronze Age manhood, into just two guys with a tale to sing. You’ve rarely felt so close to the screams and the bloodspray.


  • Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)

We’ve long known Homer was a performing bard. The oral tradition rings out in his opening call for inspiration in The Iliad — ‘Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles” — and it pops up elsewhere in the poem: “How can I sing it all like a god?” But in adapting Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad to the stage, perhaps playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare were inspired, in part, by Fagles’ own preface: “Homer’s work is a performance, even in part a musical event.’

At the Undermain Theatre, Peterson and O’Hare’s Iliad is indeed a performance, a 96-minute blowout for actor Bruce DuBose as he sweats through his shirt, declaims the bone-crushing battle scenes and evokes weary, saddened enemies coming together — for a moment — over their dead. It’s also a musical event. An Iliad premiered two years ago at the Seattle Rep and since then has been performed around the country. But certainly more than most such productions, director Katherine Owens has foregrounded the music (with sound design by DuBose). She brings Paul Semrad onstage to accompany DuBose. The former bassist for the band Course of Empire plays mandolin, lyre, guitar and percussion, while DuBose himself occasionally chants in Greek, playing a cura saz, a Turkish lute.

Still, even with all the music front and center, the Undermain’s Iliad is basically The Most Spellbinding Classical Lit Lecture You Never Attended. That doesn’t mean it’s dusty. If we’ve been lucky in college, we’ve had a professor or two who intuitively understood a lecture’s dramatic nature. They whipped up our interest in a novel or poem. They made the printed form seem mere preamble to the electrifying inspiration of speech and gesture.

It’s plain from designer John Arnone’s layout — with its chalkboards full of Greek quotations from Homer — that we’re meant to see this setting of An Iliad as a lecture hall. It’s a lecture hall, though, with odd, unnecessary blue campfires off to each side, keeping some pots bubbling. They don’t conjure up authentic battlefields so much as a funky chem lab.

In any case, the Undermain’s classroom approach also distinguishes it from other productions of An Iliad. Taking off from Peterson and O’Hare’s own remarks (seen here on video), those productions more or less portrayed The Poet as Ancient Wanderer. He comes into a bare theater or possibly a bar, and given his frayed clothes, he might even be a homeless vet. Between drinks, he regales us — his fellow barflies — with his war stories. He’s Homer as Charles Bukowski.

Bruce DuBose as The Poet in ‘An Iliad’

But at the Undermain — in keeping with the set — costumer Giva Taylor has decked out DuBose in a dapper, summery linen jacket and vest. It’s only because DuBose enters with a handsome fedora — and later, slugs down tequila instead of sherry — that we don’t take him for an Oxbridge lecturer and Semrad his teaching assistant.

No matter; this is one drama where the packaging’s not that important. Once DuBose sets the story sailing — with Homer’s famous roster of Greek ships — we are transported. Inevitably, Peterson and O’Hare have condensed the epic tale. They’ve removed, for instance, all of Diomedes’ preliminary bout with Hector and most of the tangled, ongoing quarrels amongst the gods.

But they’ve not streamlined Homer merely for length; they’ve focused this Iliad on its great theme: rage and honor. As Fagles opens his version, “Goddess, sing of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” The Greeks called it aristeia, the killing spree that found a warrior at his battlefield peak, transformed by the power of sustained fury. Alexander Pope, in his version, translated the term as “full of the god” — conveying divine possession, the hero vaulting beyond his normal, human capacities. But while aristeia literally means “best” (it’s the origin of our word ‘aristocracy’), it can also entail the warrior’s own death. He sacrifices himself to glory as he succumbs to his own single-minded destructiveness.

So we see the ennobling benefits of anger as well as its brutalizing consequences (the destruction of Troy’s fabled beauties is repeatedly invoked). We see anger power the poem in the righteous wrath of Achilles over the death of his companion Patroclus, and we see it in Achilles’ own, bitter knowledge that he himself will die young. Simultaneously, we see anger tied to varieties of masculine ego and honor — in the blustery defensiveness of Agamemnon and the heroic resignation of Hector in a cause he doesn’t fully believe in (the theft of Helen, King Menelaus’ wife, by Paris, Hector’s cowardly brother).

Bruce DuBose and Paul Semrad in ‘An Iliad.’

In performance, An Iliad feels long — not long as in butt-wearying long but long as in vast. We’re surprised that it’s only 90-odd minutes. Part of this comes from Homer’s epic techniques. His great list of ships, for instance, both heightens the drama (it was all just so big, so colossal!) and it draws attention to the poet’s own feats of memory (Homer repeatedly wonders, how can I remember all the names?).

But the play also feels long as in wrung-out. Condensing The Iliad like this gives its emotional effects more compressed power. (Peterson and O’Hare also wisely inject something that Homer generally lacks: deflating humor.) Unlike any reader who’s plowed through all twenty-four chapters, theatergoers can grasp the full arc of Achilles’ wrath from bellowing start to mournful evaporation, when he sits down at last with King Priam, father of his enemy, Hector. One of the final, more affecting moments is even silent, from a rage to a whisper: DuBose mimes Achilles picking up the body of Hector and giving it to Priam — to burn.

I have two reservations. First, DuBose is one of our finest actors, and he enjoys working with music and sound design. He’s miked here, which allows for different electronic effects with his voice, notably the addition of reverb. It’s a tingling effect — it makes the Undermain feel truly cave-like, and it can make DuBose sound suitably god-like and commanding. But I think it’s overdone. DuBose already has such a deep, theatrical baritone, the echo can seem hokey, unnecessary.

A number of the drama’s emotional peaks actually come when DuBose is at his simplest, most conversational — most vocally naked, as it were. When he plays Andromache, Hector’s wife, he points and pivots slowly. Her finger is following her husband’s dead body, Troy’s last, best hope, being dragged around the city. The triumphant Achilles is desecrating it, lashed behind his chariot, driving past the enemy’s walls. In the original Greek, Andromache screams, faints, awakens, tears off her veil — and her wails fill up a page and a half of writing.

Here, all DuBose’ wide-eyed Andromache does is ask of her husband:  “What help are you now to your infant son?” I’ve heard DuBose thunder many times; I hadn’t heard him whisper like a widow choked by grief.

My larger reservation is about Peterson and O’Hare’s adaptation. Scholars argue that Homer’s image of Hellenic warfare is poeticized and inaccurate: The chieftains did not ride to the frontlines in their splendid chariots, conveniently dismount and then engage in solo combat. Yet it’s clear the poet knows full well what a flying, bronze-tipped spear does when it splits a human face.

It’s hard for we modern listeners to thrill to such bloodlust — except when it’s presented in other forms like action films or video games. But Homer clearly wants us to exult in the dismembering splendor of violence, the smashing of bodies when done by a master, a knight, a samurai. These hymns to flashing armor and slashed anatomy are some of the poet’s most spectacular, even sensual passages:

“But one spot lay exposed

where collarbones lift the neckbone off the shoulders

the open throat, where the end of life comes quickest — there

— as Hector charged in fury, brilliant Achilles drove his spear

and the point went stabbing clean through.”

There should be an exultation expressed in these lines, akin to the thrill of watching Pulp Fiction or playing Call of Duty. Instead, in this context, we’re mostly appalled. Or we marvel at Homer’s savage expertise in verse — and not the tendon-severing reality of what he’s describing. It’s true, though, that unlike a a piece of kitschy mayhem like the film 300, Homer doesn’t ignore the agonies that remain: the weeping survivors, the loss of sons and fathers and husbands. Neither does Homer offer any easy consolation. There is the glory of one’s memory being sung, of course, but otherwise, for your soul? It simply vanishes down to the House of Death.

Accordingly — judging from what they’ve said and written — Peterson and O’Hare want to balance the overall effect of Homer’s poem, so that even in this shorter, punchier stage version, we get both sides, the excitement and the devastation of battle.

But in actual performance, An Iliad is pretty one-sided: It packs a solidly anti-war wallop, something it’s hard to see Homer ever fully intending. (Hence, the changed title, An Iliad, an interpretation of The Iliad, one of many interpretations.) The play’s anti-war power builds and builds, not just because of the gore that Homer relished and we recoil from. The adapters also want to make Homer’s war alive and present for their modern audience. They slip us into the play, inserting us in Homer’s epic lists.

It’s a simple enough trick but undeniably effective. The Poet breaks off recounting all the Greek leaders and where they sailed from and starts naming towns in Indiana, Michigan and Texas. Later, his roster of the many wars that will follow this late-Bronze Age squabble becomes an exercise in human futility and death echoing down through history.

Much like King Lear’s famous cry of grief, “Never, never, never, never, never,” the list seems to go on forever until it engulfs us and implicates us in our seats.

Unless  — Peterson and O’Hare imply — we stop it.