On Sunday night, fellow Screwhead Jeffrey Kieviet and I eschewed the madness that was the Superbowl in favor of attending a one man performance of The Iliad… Actually it was An Iliad, I guess because nowadays there are multiple Iliads… or something. Remember that movie Troy? Yeah, this is nothing like that.
The show, which was performed at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, starred celebrated thespian Denis O’Hare, bringing to life each of the characters that populate this ancient ballad. Mr. O’Hare won a Tony Award for his performance in the 2002 baseball themed drama Take Me Out, and he’s also been featured onstage in such shows as Assassins, Into the Woods, Inherit the Wind, and many others. Onscreen, he’s appeared in such films as Milk, Michael Clayton, Charlies Wilson’s War and Changeling. His career has been long and lauded.
So, while our introduction to him wasn’t exactly what you’d call the pinnacle of high culture, the fact remains: Denis O’Hare is a boss. For this production, which he also co-wrote with director Lisa Peterson, he’s cast in the role of The Poet; and he shambles onstage wearing a tattered overcoat and carrying a briefcase that contains, among other things, his liquor supply. He’s the archetypical wandering minstrel that would have been celebrated in Ancient Greece and would likely freeze to death in a gutter today.
The Poet takes it upon himself to tell us the story of the Iliad, giving most of his focus to the rivalry between mighty warriors Achilles and Hector. He takes care with his performance to highlight exactly how sad and pointless all of this fighting is, seamlessly evoking the raging and arrogant Achilles, the young and fearful Patroclus, the old and grieving Priam, and the mischievous Hermes. He’s accompanied the entire time by bassist Brian Ellingsen, who makes creative use of his instrument to set the mood, sometimes playing it normally and sometimes tapping it like a drum.
The Poet’s version of the story is very heavily that of Achilles and Hector. Certain iconic parts of the story are glossed over – the Trojan Horse is mentioned only once, and Odysseus isn’t discussed at all – and a heavier emphasis is given to the battles. The story is told from a modern perspective – when The Poet told us of the greatness of warriors like Achilles, he asked his audience who the greatest living warrior of the present day was. Only one audience member answered – “The Rock!” – he told us that, yes, Achilles was greater even than him.
There are moments in this show when you are truly transfixed by what’s going on onstage, even forgetting that you’re just watching one guy tell you a story; a particularly poignant moment occurs when The Poet sits in a spotlight and lists pretty much every war that’s ever occurred, from ancient times to the present day. It takes him several minutes and highlights the timelessness of his tale. He creates a similar moment when he holds up an (imaginary) picture of a World War One battle scene and describes the hopes, dreams and aspirations of some of the young men in it; all of whom are now lying dead in the trenches.
If I had any quibbles about this show, they would involve the quieter moments; sometimes, at least from where we sat, it became difficult to hear the Poet as his voice became lower and softer. I don’t know if this was due to the venue or what, but it’s not a major complaint. I have nothing but respect for actors that can pull off a one man show, and while this isn’t the best one of those I’ve ever seen – Jeffrey Combs’ performance as Edgar Allan Poe in Nevermore would probably get that honor – it is a powerful, oftentimes hypnotic production headlined by a mighty talent.
Now watch him rip a dude’s spine out: