An Illiad at the New York Theatre Workshop

This Spring Break, I fortunately purchased the last ticket to a Wednesday night performance of An Illiad produced by the New York Theatre Workshop.  The production was created by Denis O’Hare, an actor you may recognize from HBO’s TrueBlood and director Lisa Peterson.  It is a one man show, performed on alternate nights by O’Hare and actor Steven Spinella, who won two Tony’s for his performance in the original Broadway production of Angels in America.  I had the pleasure of seeing Stephen Spinella play “the Poet,” and he orates a contemporary adaptation of Homer’s Illiad in 100 minutes.

What moved me most in this production was the text’s ability to relate the Trojan War to almost all other wars fought since.  The Poet spoke in plain words, using several verbal pauses for  example, to tell an ancient story still rooted in our present.  Heightened language and classical Greek were used sparingly and specifically, especially during conversations between the Poet and the music of a Cello, who the Poet refers to as his muses.

Although I was entertained by this production and enjoyed Spinella’s performance, I left the theatre unmoved.   Of course, this is only my personal response to the piece and the performance I witnessed, but I wonder what, on a technical level, was not sitting well with me.  I have a few thoughts on this matter:

1. Something about the pacing was predictable in its unpredictability.  The play began with a hard sound and a flash of light, and after that point, grew quieter.  Fifteen minutes later, another big sound and an explosion of action!  Then more quiet.  Ten minutes later, an explosion…and so on and so forth.  Something about this constant wave of explosions into quietness didn’t sit well with me because the surprise of the explosion wore off and became predictable; however, I wonder if there’s something about this pacing that relates to the pacing of war.  The Poet does discuss a lot of waiting and intimate, quiet moments of connection…

2. I had a question about the nature of the theatre space.  In short, the NYTW Theatre Space felt large.  Although the actor played to the back row and had an affinity for working with the space, I wonder how this piece would have landed on audiences were it performed in a smaller space.  Since this is a play that deals with storytelling in the modern age, I feel that it is imperative to have a real connection between the audience and poet so the story is fully heard.  Although most of the people in the audience were middle-aged and seniors, how must we construct theatrical experiences to connect with generations of Americans who are used to watching TV?  Being in the large audience seating, some of the intimacy of the storytelling was lost and words had less of an ability to travel to our hearts.  I understand that Greek Theatre was performed in Amphitheaters, but I personally wonder how we can be more in touch with the audience viewing circumstances today.

I question if this play was just not my taste and maybe it was the lack of visuals and the constancy of one actor; however, I have to ask myself if there was anything that I would do differently if I were an artist working on this piece?

Here is a NY Times review of An Illiad.

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