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An Iliad at Arts Emerson (#latetotheparty)

My post about Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad is late; I am posting my thoughts here after the run at ArtsEmerson has closed. This does not concern me, however, because I have enormous faith that this production will find its way to a long and powerful touring run. An Iliad was one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I have seen in quite some time and struck me to my core in many ways.

After the performance, I wanted to luxuriate in how complete the production felt. It was cohesive, it was brilliantly conceived and executed, it told a crystal clear story. But also, it was poignant and deeply-felt by the protagonist, a singer of the oldest songs. As I allowed the production to wash over me and resonate, it began to open doors for me, pathways of thought that I am still pondering over a week later. These are not new questions for me, but they remain challenging to encounter and truly consider: What is our relationship to war? How do we deal with the consequences of war? Is peace possible?

I am not sure I have ever trusted a storyteller as much as I did watching An Iliad, and the trust that O’Hare established absolutely made it possible for me to enter fully into the story which could feel so far from my own experience. Toward the beginning of the show, he described all the Greek soldiers coming to Troy to fight by relating it to our own country, asking us to consider what it would be like to have boys leave from Berkeley, California, from Boston and New Jersey and Georgia and Texas, all to fight in this same war. Right off the bat we were thinking about our own boys, opening a window into our own experience. That was one of several moments that appealed to the audience specific experience as an entryway into the Greek Hero’s experience. In this way, the singer took on the role of the Greek Chorus, representing me in the story so that I, in turn, could invest in the experience. It was one of the most effective uses of that particular set of tools that I have ever seen because the structure gave O’Hare the flexibility to directly address and involve his audience.

The humanity of this piece surprised me, although it’s a bit ironic that it did. It reminded me of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, which we had read in Contemporary Drama just a few weeks previous, but this piece took a different approach to a society which is desensitized to violence. Instead of showing violence and brutality, O’Hare appealed to pathos from the very start. He appealed not only to my compassion for the suffering that the soldiers experienced, but through humor. In a particularly funny passage, the singer extrapolated on the consequences of being away from home for ten years, which culminated with a neighbor’s snide remark that “We don’t wear those leggings anymore.” Of course, it became my entry point for that experience, which was structurally brilliant for the more challenging moments of the story.

The structure would also have been impossible if the show had not relied on a single narrator. O’Hare played every role in the show, with the support of the musician who represented the Muses. Because of this, he was able to investigate the Greek side of the battles, fully embodying one set of characters and encouraging audience loyalty to a specific subset of those characters. Then he would switch and begin to talk about the Trojans with an equal amount of empathy. This was remarkable and something I have never seen in exploration of epic Greek stories. He gave equal weight to both points of view and was able to because we experienced all of the characters in one impartial body.

One of the most affecting moments of the story was experiencing O’Hare’s description of Troy as an Eden of sorts. This was in particular juxtaposition to a scene in The Penelopiad, one scene of which was titled “The Fall of Troy” and discussed the literal and metaphoric rape and pillage of the city. That scene culminated in one of the characters becoming overwhelmed and shouting at another to stop telling her what happened, to which the latter replied, “That’s what happens when you lose a war.” The perspective of that play was obviously very different, but O’Hare was sensitive to an audience’s response to hearing about the post-war atrocities that the Greeks committed. He did not need to shout at us, because we know what happens to the losers of war.

I now wish to discuss the brilliant use of music in An Iliad. The bassist/percussionist was a physical manifestation of the Muses, without which the singer would have no hope of expressing his story. Indeed, that was the case, as the emotional landscape of the tale was beautifully sculpted by the bass. The bass also provided percussion, and the piece was helped enormously by the non-conventional ways the instrument was played. The bassist used harmonics as a primary way of establishing melody, only occasionally embracing the bass’ deeper tones to great effect. Additionally, the taboo area around the bridge of the instrument was embraced without a second thought for ghostlier moments, and the musician often used the wood of the bow and pizzicato to create a more percussive atmosphere. These are technical observations, and they are not particularly interesting when they stand alone. As a musician, I was awed at how the play embraced each and every way the bass could make sound, and really fed those impulses into the storytelling. This play would obviously be incomplete without the bass. The song is incomplete without the music; this has never been more evident to me and I was so inspired by the possibilities that were revealed to me as to what music can be.

Wherever you are in the world reading this, I hope and actually trust that An Iliad will find its way to you in some form. When it does, all I can say is this: Don’t miss out. Find a way to see it, bring all your theatre-people friends and your other friends and family. Seeing this show connects an audience to a universal humanity that is as current as it is ancient. O’Hare’s character expresses more than once that he hopes each time he sings this song that it will be the last. The message is poignant, the effects of thousands of years of warfare almost too apparent, but for the sake of our world, I hope he is put through telling it a few more times.

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