An Illiad

Better Late than never…!

When I was in New York over spring break, I went to see An Illiad by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Petersonat the New York Theatre Workshop  featuring Stephen Spinella and Denis O’Hare on alternating nights.   I saw Stephen Spinella. The script was very interesting and engaging at certain moments, evoking thoughts and feelings about the seemingly everlasting nature of war.  Going in to see An Illiad, I was a bit tired, my fault, but I remained tired throughout, which I think had something to do with the production.  While I left the theatre feeling somewhat unsatisfied, I also left thinking, largely about why I felt unsatisfied by the production.

The script was very engaging at moments. One interesting tool that the playwrights employed was that of requiring that the audience fill in some of the play’s imagery.  The entire story was very imaged based, it is after all, a one-man show, so throughout the play, both actor and audience inhabit and create many different images.  Often, the poet (the narrator of the story) would evoke and image of a character, by saying for example, “Hector, he was a good father, an all around good guy, a guy you want to be friends with, kind of like…”  And then he’d move on without filling in the blank.  This requires the audience to personally engage with the story by supplying their own image of who that person is from their own lives.  Sometimes the modern parallels were drawn for the audience.  In order to allow us to understand the rage that came over Achilles, for example, the poet says something along the lines of, “you know like when someone cuts you off and you think I could just kill you right now, hit you with my car, and if that doesn’t kill you I’ll get out of my car and tear you apart, limb from limb.”  This story uses modern examples in which rage, fear, love, the need to protect, betrayal, etc. arise, thereby insisting the audience relate these “far away” events of the Trojan war to their own lives.

Of course the play was not just about the Trojan war, but rather war in general, which is very present today.  These feelings and situations are not unique to ancient Greece, not even to organized war, but actually occur in our daily lives.  We are all capable of these acts.  And we all have the potential to commit them or to choose not to.   I had trouble filling in some of the images left up to the audience.  This was just as interesting to me as the images that I could fill in.  For example, we were at one point asked to imagine standing in a field of bodies, we were told “you know what that’s like”  I don’t know what that is like.  It made me acutely aware that these horrible things are happening in the world and I have no idea what that feels like.  In some ways I can relate to war and in some ways I am completely removed from it.  What does that mean when citizens are removed from war?  Does that enable the war to keep going?  If all of us knew what it was like to stand in a field of bodies would wars even be happening?

One incredibly moving moment was when the poet simply recited wars throughout history, the list when on for a full five minutes or thereabouts.  We were forced to sit there and listen to the names of all these wars, some of them I was familiar with and some of them I was not.  Through telling the story of the Trojan war, the poet is telling us the story of every war throughout history, and reminding us that it is indeed a story that we all know.  Towards the end of the play, the poet does not want to finish the story.  He can’t go on, it is too heartbreaking.  Instead of re-enacting the story as he has been mostly doing up until this point, he simply recounts it in a narrative form.  And instead of focusing on the brutal elements, he focuses on the soft, human elements.  He describes all of the different parties of war sleeping.  Reminding us that we are all human.  He even says that Achilles is thinking, beneath his armor, “I’m scared, couldn’t we just get a beer?”.  The poet high lights the miscommunication that often fuels or even starts wars by even in this image of getting a beer instead of fighting, showing two parties disagree on the name for a herron.  Communication is lost because of language.

Overall, I think the script was very effective and engaging.  However, the acting left me wondering what the play might have been had I seen Denis O’Hare instead of Stephen Spinella.  Sit was very clear that Spinella was an accomplished, very trained actor.  However, I caught myself admiring his technique often instead of following the story.  Spinella seemed to repeat the same rhythms over and over again which was somewhat lulling instead of engaging, although this may also have been inherrent in the script.  I think that these rhythms are meant to make us feel the monotony of war, but it did not engage me as much as it could have were it not so lulling.  Also, Spinella played very much to the back of the house.  I was in the front and felt a disconnect between me and the actor.

One very interesting aspect of the performance was the presence of a musician.  He was on a balcony-like platform high above the audience.  He added very much to the images throughout by playing music.  It added to the epic feeling of this epic tale.