By Karen Kenyon
As we begin to leave the theatre space after seeing “An Iliad,” we leave in silence — after a standing ovation.
After all, it is finished — Hector is dead, Achilles has lost his rage, and the Poet has left the stage with his suitcase of war.
On a mostly bare set (with a sink, cleaning tools, and other backstage clutter toward the back) one chair, and a table, the “poet,” performed by Henry Woronicz, tells us the story of The Trojan War, focusing on the conflict between the half-god warrior, Achilles of Achaea (Greece), and Hector, Prince of Troy and Commander of the Trojans.
Woronicz has appeared on Broadway in Julius Caesar with Denzel Washington, and has acted and directed at American Conservatory Theatre. He is currently the head of MFA Acting at Illinois State University.
Woronicz inhabits the persona of the ancient storyteller, helped and accompanied in his retelling by a Muse — Brian Ellingsen, a virtuoso musician playing the double bass. The sounds created by the Muse are an integral part of the production — evoking horror, bliss, madness, enchantment, which accompany the poet’s retelling of the story and reflect the emotional journey. Sometimes Ellingsen attacks the base — other times he caresses it.
The war started, of course, when Paris abducted the beautiful Helen, and took her back to Troy (as translator Stephen Mitchell has written, she was the first Trophy wife).
A shaft of light (lighting by Scott Zielinski) begins the drama as the play begins with the poet in a sort of pleading/crouching/kneeling position, speaking Greek. At that moment we are transported to ancient Greece.
Lighting is used effectively throughout the production — to form a circle for the poet to pose within (as Hermes, for example), and to create large, ominous shadows on the back wall.
As the poet begins his tale he calls upon the Muses to help him. Shortly, with clatter and then a loud theatre-shaking vibrato sound, the Muse, as performed by Ellingsen, and the sound of war, arrive.
As the poet tells how many ships are coming from Achaea to attack Troy or to bring back Helen, we know he speaks of thousands of warriors — but he lends the scene a modern twist, for he tells us these warriors are from Lawrence, Kansas, from Flint, Michigan.
When Woronicz speaks of the destruction of Troy he also gives it a contemporary twist, comparing it to Dresden, and to Aleppo in Syria.
He opens his suitcase, full of the war songs, and takes out a bottle of tequila – “Athena Tequila”, he calls it. Athena, of course, is the goddess of wisdom, and the protector of the Achaeans.
As the 90 minute production unfolds, several high points are memorable:
The bloody scene of the fighting involving Patroclus, Achilles life-long friend and cousin, which culminated in Patroclus’s death — so horrifying that it seems to reach a point of madness — “So Patroclus crowded corpse on corpse on the earth that reared us all.”
While writhing on the table top the poet suddenly stops himself. The audience too is shaken, and needs recovery.
Perhaps the most striking series of moments is when the poet gives us a litany of some 141 wars, from the Peloponnesian War until the mention of Syria. (Lisa Peterson, co-writer and director, has said there have been only 11 years when mankind has not been at war.)
After that enormous outpouring the poet’s mouth forms a silent howl, which then becomes the scream of the mother of Hector, after the heroic Prince is killed by mighty Achilles. And the poet says of Hector, “His soul went winging down to the house of the Dead.”
Achille’s rage has fueled him throughout the war, and when it leaves him after the death of Hector, the energy of the story turns.
The words of Homer (perhaps more than one writer/creator gave us The Iliad) tell of war, but in a personal way, and in an impartial way — for we are told of the deaths of not just the Achaeans, but also of the citizens of Troy.
French philosopher Simone Weil has written of this extreme impartiality that “breathes through The Iliad.”
As we theatre-goers continue our exit from the ancient world, and step into the slight fog cover of a La Jolla evening, time seems pliable, seems a circle. The gods seem present.
Surely this was/is happening now.
Today the song of war is not seen as glorious as in Homer’s day (but perhaps that is a partial myth as well). For it all came down to Hector’s death, and the love of his father, pleading for the corpse of his son in order to ensure what was considered a proper burial.
The poet has left the stage, with his suitcase packed full of war — and Athena Tequila — but the wars go on.
La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum stage will offer An Iliad, written by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, based on Robert Fagel’s translation of Homer’s three thousand year old epic, The Iliad. The play closes September 9. 858-550-1010 LaJollaPlayhouse.org
Karen Kenyon has been published in The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, British Heritage, Westways, and The Christian Science Monitor. She also has two books Sunshower (Putnam, NY) and The Bronte Family (Lerner Publications, Minnesota) She teaches at MiraCosta College and UCSD-X.