THEATER REVEW: “An Iliad” at Cleveland Play House by Roy Berko

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 2/10

Every once in a while, a production is so theatrically exciting that it provides an understanding of what theater is all about. Such is the present Cleveland Play House presentation of An Iliad.

Performed in CPH’s Outcalt Theatre, it is yet another reason that local theatergoers should be cheering that the institution moved from its outdated three-proscenium home to the Allen complex in Playhouse Square. This production simply could not have been performed in a proscenium stage.

The thrust stage, inserted in the black-box space with the audience closely snuggled around the acting area, makes the entire experience upfront and personal. That’s a necessity for the interactive concept conceived for the “past-to-present” based on Homer’s epic The Iliad, expanded into a tale of societies who still define themselves by their wars.

Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare have kept the basic form of Homer’s work, added affronts to the audience, where the Poet, performing on a stage area with no set with a stepladder as her only prop, relates the tale of the divine-like destructive wrath of Achilles. It is a rage which the authors indicate is within all humans and “gods” alike. It is this rage that makes a person wage war, whether on the battlefield, as a response to road rage, or in personal disagreements.

The staging of the tale, wisely directed by Tarah Flanagan and Andrew Carlson, is done in the purest form of theatricality, placing all attention on the spoken word, not on the sets, costumes or special effects which often distract from the message itself.

Flanagan masterfully performs the 90-minute play with no intermission. It is a tour-de-force presentation. Speaking and moving with rapid, sure, powerful physical and vocal control, Flanagan climbs the ladder, moves up and down the theater aisles, creates and destroys walls while holding the audience’s attention captive.

Flanagan is nicely supported by Eva Rose Scholz-Carlson, a 17-year old wunderkind who plucks and bows her cello with surety, using her self-composed music to highlight the spoken and emotional moods of the script.

Flanagan directly confronts the audience with her fine storytelling skills, speaking of modern day events that parallel the Trojan wars.   She asks questions, sits among the audience and interacts with the viewers. She floats, flees and fixates on the events of the war and its modern parallels.

At one point, the Poet, in a mind-blowing segment, lists all the major wars that civilizations have been involved in from ancient to modern times. The result is an illuminating awareness of the cruelty and rage of humans.

Does it matter if you aren’t aware of The Iliad or the history of the Trojan Wars? Actually, no. Flanagan takes us on a journey that has such clarity of idea that literature and history teachers should take into account. Oh, if only our teaching sages could convey the message as well!

The script is peppered with the phrase “do you see?” as a device to make the listener aware of the parallel that history does repeat itself. It screams, “Wake up, oh ye, naïve viewer!”

As the publicity for the play states, An Iliad weaves humanity’s unshakable attraction to warfare with the music of the muses, capturing the contradictory conditions of glory and violence with spellbinding modernity.” Oh, yes it does!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: In a virtuoso performance, Tarah Flanagan, using language that ranges from contemporary realism to epic poetry, and inhabiting over 50 characters, challenges us to realize the role of rage and think, “How do you know you’ve won?” As the modern-day conflicts in Vietnam, Syria and Afghanistan illustrate, “How do you know?” This is an absolute “must see” production for anyone who desires to experience a theater production at its finest and is willing to probe what makes us human.

An Iliad runs through Sun 2/10 at The Outcalt Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

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