THEATER REVIEW: “An Iliad” at Cleveland Play House by Laura Kennelly

Photos by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 2/10

How about a war story? Stomping across the bare floor of the Outcalt Theatre, the seemingly indefatigable Tarah Flanagan as The Poet calls upon the muses to sustain and inspire her as she recounts An Iliad. Her version, crafted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, is based on the Robert Fagles translation of Homer’s classic.

Co-directed by Flanagan and Andrew Carlson, the tale plucks key incidents (usually tumultuous ones) from the Greeks’ 10-year battle to conquer the beautiful city of Troy. It’s a story of tragedy (if you are rooting for Troy) and one of triumph (if you are for the Greeks) as woven into Homer’s epic of battle and death.

Although Homer has been described as — among other things — a blind poet who recited from memory, here we have no old man telling the story. Instead it’s told by a robust speaker with fine dramatic gestures, including fist-waving, weeping, waving swords, drawing lines with colored sand, and vaulting up ladders.

Flanagan talks directly to the audience, singling out members to address and even bounding up into the seats to rest briefly as she turns to ask rhetorical questions or relate narrative elements. Flanagan’s skill and energy as a master storyteller makes everything flow and holds our attention for some 100 minutes. Whew! (You may remember Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as ancient Greek verse, composed as early as 725 B. C. If you were required to read it in school, I can only hope your teacher’s account was as dramatic and moving as Flanagan’s.)

After a short while a muse does indeed respond to The Poet’s opening cries for help. Eva Rose Scholz-Carlson, composer, suddenly appears as a mute muse, sits down and begins to accompany The Poet with quietly appropriate and dramatic responses as she draws her bow across the cello she has brought with her.

The play stays true to the promise of Fagles’ opening lines, “Rage — goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,/murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,/hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls….” Death and rage are movingly described. When The Poet lists the soldiers who die of plague or injury by the ships or outside the fortress, she makes it personal, interspersing references to lads from Dallas, Akron, from Cleveland, from Parma, etc. as she does later when she lists hundreds of wars in chronological order from the Greeks to Syria (hence, today).

Her lists suggest the utter futility of trying to “settle” anything via war and emphasizes Homer’s conversation between Achilles and Priam near the end of the epic when Achilles says “So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men/live on to bear such torments….” It’s not optimistic about humans ever ending wars and fighting, and yet it credits efforts at reconciliation as exemplified by Achilles releasing Hector’s body to be buried in ceremonies in Troy. The war is put on hold for 12 days. But of course, it continues later.

Other notable elements: Creator Flanagan’s clever costume design allowed The Poet to remain onstage while suddenly shifting into different outfits. (I counted four from rough coat to pretty yellow Grecian dress.) Scenic designer Ian Stillman provided an ingenious setting for The Poet to spin her story.

BOTTOM LINE: An engaging performance in the grand tradition of epic story-telling. I’d advise a quick review of Homer’s epic (try wiki) and not having a drink before the show to avoid sleepiness or having to exit before it’s over.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]


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