An Illiad, Berkeley

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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‘An Iliad’

By Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare
Adapted from Homer
Translated by Robert Fagles
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Oct. 12-Nov. 18, 2012

An old man shuffles out on the stage in a battered overcoat and worn boots, looking for all the world like a street person seeking a handout. And armies clash by night; great heroes rise, only to fall in the dust, widows wail and blood soaks the plain. And the man, rather than seeking anything, gives us a tale of a wonderful and terrible war. And that war becomes all wars.

The amazing actor Henry Woronicz straddles the ages as The Poet; certainly Homer, but perhaps not — ageless, deathless, full of verse and memories that he would rather forget (and, indeed, much of the little comedy that is in this show comes from his attempts to remember long-ago names and events). Woronicz, who has performed with regional theaters around the country and extensively on television, is a marvel in the role. It is a minor miracle that he can remember all those words, let alone transmit them in a way that stirs our hearts and souls. His only accompaniment is bassist Brian Ellingson, who, dressed in plaid shirt and jeans, rides in on a bike and climbs to a high perch to deliver Mark Bennett’s lovely score.

It’s all as contemporary as it is ancient. Obie Award-winning director Lisa Peterson has crafted an understandable and entertaining version of the great Trojan saga with famed actor Denis O’Hare from a really good translation by Robert Fagles. Sometimes the words flowing from The Poet’s mouth are modern and vernacular, sometimes poetic, especially when he describes the great battles and the terrifying blood lust that can come over the best of men in the heat of conflict.

The Poet changes his voice and body language to become the heroes Achilles and Hector, the overbearing Agamemnon and the cowardly Paris, the seductive Helen and Andromache, the loyal wife, Hecuba and Priam, the elderly rulers of Troy and many others. It is a bravura performance, never so much so as when the old man, weary of war, recites a litany of the battles that have made and marked our history. Not a polemic, just the names — from Troy down through the many Crusades, the civil wars (including America’s own) ending with Kabul and Aleppo. Except one wonders if it ever really ends.

The Trojans were finally defeated by a hollow horse. The Greeks fell in their turn. And so it goes on to this day. “How do you know when you’ve won?” he asks. How indeed?

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