I read The Iliad in high school. Or was it The Odyssey? Or was it both? I just remember that it didn't really connect with me--too much going on... too much story spooling out forever. Also, I was in high school.
On Friday, I saw An Iliad at Portland Center Stage. A smartly-written play and a great production that brought out all the elements I don't think I was mature enough to notice back in high school. Surprising themes of war-as-tragedy wrapped up in that particular hero's journey. Surprising moments of heart in what I always figured was one big swashbuckling adventure story. The writers Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson take the themes further by their shaping of the play--what stories they highlight, what stories they leave out, what stories they touch on in tiny, particular ways and then let lie--and also in the ways they lift up and away from the stories: some very surprising moments that I won't spoil, but which I'll say... do the trick.
There's some definite audacity in the writing of this play, and you need some good acting and directing to pull it off. Both go into the creation on stage of the storyteller who takes you through this Iliad, and since I don't for a minute understand the art that goes into directing, I'll just say that what Penny Metropulos did worked... and move on to the actor, Joseph Graves, who was so excellent in playing the drunken storyteller morphing in and out of all the sub-parts in the stories he tells. One-man shows can be a forum for actors to get up there and parade their ability to play different parts right down your throat, but Graves doesn't do that. He plays the different parts but in a way that keeps the storyteller on stage. There's some lovely, ancient storyteller magic that gets up inside him--you witness the transformation--and then moves him from narrator to Hector to narrator to Achilles to narrator to Hecuba fluidly and gracefully. In a way that keeps narrator folded into story and present folded into past--which could feel gimmicky if not done well.
Present-folded-into-past was set up really well by the stage set. Particularly the wall that surrounds the whole space of the theater--graffiti all over the stone in different languages. We all remember references in history books to old graffiti, whether in Pompeii or Egypt or carved by American frontiersmen. The mind bounces around these things, touches on the cave paintings at Lascaux, sees the thread through time and through place, which is just what the play itself does.
The show, the production, the set - it all has a way of letting you feel smart even if you were the kid who was bored by The Iliad in high school and didn't retain any of it except for the thing about the face that launched a thousand ships.