Back in the before times, when I first learned that Court Theatre was planning a site-specific production of “An Iliad” at the Oriental Institute to celebrate both that institution's centennial and artistic director Charles Newell's 25th anniversary at the theater, I was thrilled.
I'd already seen Court's hit premiere of Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's retelling of Homer's “The Iliad” in 2011, as well as the 2013 revival, and had been blown away by Timothy Edward Kane's solo performance as the Poet in both. Anticipating how he and director Newell would adapt the play for a setting replete with ancient artifacts (including fragments of an early written version of Homer's original) was a source of considerable excitement.
Then COVID-19 shut everything down, and, as the pandemic persisted for months on end, I gave up hope (along with others, I’m sure). But Court came up with a clever idea: It filmed a live performance at the OI and is streaming it through March.
Watching this version of “An Iliad” on a computer screen is a fascinating experience. Peterson and O'Hare's text wasn't changed that much (except for updating the list of wars) for the move from Court's theater to the OI, but the staging was re-imagined for the new location, as was the Poet's relationship to his audience. It's much more intimate and personal as he leads the 25-or-so viewers through the museum, with an early stop in the Persian Room and a later one in what seems to be a storage area,
Kane interacts with individuals, drawing them into the story, offering asides intended to capture their attention.
He also uses the space in ways that weren't possible with scenic designer Todd Rosenthal's original set. Huge sculptures provide a perfect backdrop for the opening, while the walk through the galleries facilitates Kane's description of the beauty and serenity of Troy before the war. In the back room, scaffolding, platforms and packing crates become the props for his increasingly frenzied accounts of bloody battles, death and destruction. Keith Parham's often harsh lighting using ghost lights and Andre Pluess’ understated sound design add to the tension. In Rachel Healy's layered, ragged costume, Kane looks more than ever like a homeless person who wandered into the wrong place.
But what happens when you're seeing all this on film rather than being there? In some ways, the effect isn't as immediate or intense; in other ways, it is. Multiple cameras make possible closeups that highlight Kane's every expression and gesture, even the perspiration that pours off him as the rage he's depicting gets out of control. His performance is as stunning as ever, but new perspectives make parts of it more powerful.
It also comes across as more conversational, despite the occasional invocations in Greek and grand declamations. When the Poet pauses during his litany of ships and soldiers from all the islands of Greece and substitutes U.S. states to make his audience understand, the analogy strikes home — with humor — more than the mental image of ships along the Trojan coast conjured up by Court's original set.
While the Poet clearly understands the allure of war and the impossibility of getting out of it once you're in, the terrible costs are even more compelling. The account here focuses on a series of events highlighting the pridefulness and pettiness of men, as well as the meddling of the gods who take sides and keep switching.
The trouble starts when Agamemnon agrees to return a young woman to her father only if Achilles will give him his woman, Briseis, as a replacement. Achilles does so reluctantly, pressured by his fellow Greeks. But then he takes to his tent, sulking, and refuses to fight. Without their greatest warrior, the Greeks start losing, so Achilles' best buddy (and maybe more), Patroclus, begs him to resume battle. He refuses, having given his word not to fight, but he lets Patroclus don his armor and pretend to be him, on the condition that he'll stop at driving the Trojans back to the city walls and not go further.
Patroclus promises but breaks his vow, leading to his death. An unknown throws the first spear, but Trojan King Priam's son, Hector, delivers the final blow, arousing Achilles' rage and leading to the climactic showdown between the two heroes. The Poet takes the time to flesh out Hector's character, especially with a touching scene between him, his wife and his infant son on the ramparts of Troy.
Explaining that he's not going to tell the tale of the Trojan horse and all the other stuff we already know, the Poet instead recounts a heart-wrenching incident that perhaps points the way to possible peace. In the middle of the night, King Priam ventures into enemy territory and comes to Achilles' tent to beg for the body of Hector, so he can give his son a proper burial. Entreated to think of his own father, Achilles shows some pity, though the respite is short-lived.
To be honest, I was worried the filmed version of “An Iliad” would be disappointing, but except for some slight problems with the sound, it wasn't. Credit goes to the timelessness of the material, the brilliance of Kane's performance and the inventiveness of the staging and filming.
As a bonus, don't miss a behind-the-scenes conversation between Kane and Newell on March 25 about the process of remounting “An Iliad” in such a unique setting.