Denis O'Hare stalks about ArtsEmerson's Paramount main stage dressed in a tattered overcoat, beat up laced boots, and a crumpled hat, carrying a cardboard suitcase. When he removes his overcoat, his gray mesh sweater beneath is wrinkled and threadbare. He sports a leather belt wound tightly around his waist. He's Everyman, having just arrived in Boston to tell his tale of woe and war. The play, An Iliad, is a solo re-telling of Homer's epic poem. It's being given a powerful, one-of-a-kind production I strongly urge to see before it leaves town on May 4.
O'Hare wrote the play with Lisa Peterson, and, echoing its protagonist, it has traveled from Seattle to New York to Chicago with several stops in between. Using minimalist props - a table, chair, a jug of spirits, and a glass housed inside the suitcase - O'Hare is, at turns, haunting, poetic, mesmerizing, and, ultimately, astonishing. He is joined on stage by Brian Ellingsen, a bassist, who plays long, sonorous notes on his instrument that echo throughout the auditorium like the wailing of a human voice.
There is much to lament: war has taken its toll, and unlike the line foretold in 1 Corinthians -- "...and the dead shall be raised imperishable and we will be changed" - nothing of the sort occurs. We learn that war changes nothing. War is senseless, never-ending, and all-consuming; it litters our streets and maims our citizens. War serves no purpose except to glorify the egos of the gods.
In perhaps the most astonishing moments in the play, O'Hare, seated on a chair center stage, turns to the audience and recounts the entire catalogue of senseless wars that have been recorded since the dawn of human history. We learn about the "a tug of war" with "nothing to show but pain and loneliness."
We find ourselves listening with rapt attention, as if attending a lecture. But this is not an academic exercise, and we are not students in a lecture hall. As members of the audience, as fellow wanderers on a troubled and vulnerable planet, we have borne witness to much of what O'Hare recounts. We carry within us the seeds of these conflicts like viral spores that, despite our pledges to become more peaceful and less bellicose, are released upon all the landscapes we visit or inhabit.
O’Hare takes us through occasional recitations of Greek, a song he croaks here and there that lands on our ears as intelligible, and then, in a most articulate way, in the parlance of today’s American English, we learn, in sputters, about the wrath of the gods, "pride, honor, jealousy...Helen is more beautiful than anyone else and she’s been stolen, and the Greeks have to get her back."
The production makes only occasional use of shadows, as in the scene when O’Hare, as Achilles, projects the image of this towering figure against the Paramount’s wall and we feel a shutter pass up our spines as a figure from mythology comes alive before us. I wished for more of these.
There is such scant use of stage craft throughout: more is needed to convey, in visual imagery, the pictures conjured by the words that O’Hare pours forth. This would not detract from the message of the play, or from the performer. Rather, it would enhance his work, and return us to the original power of Homer’s creativity, namely an oral tradition born from our ancestors who, before the written word was invented, sat around campfires and used shadows to become other characters, and to act out their feats of war, glory, and ruin.
O’Hare uses contrasts - "I wish I could show you Troy before the war," he says at one point, and then describes how it looks after it has been ravaged - a simple device that pulls us back into this oral tradition. It is highly effective; it acknowledges our abilities to see in our minds’ eyes, using our own senses. And as the sounds of the bass violin swirls around us, the impossible costs of war, the "terror and strife" become known to us. Indeed, since they are already part of our human inheritance, we relive them.
At the play’s end, O’Hare, like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, continues on his journey to continually tell his tale, passing "like night, from land to land, with a strange power of speech." That gift of speech takes us prisoner but ultimately releases us to tell others, to admonish others we meet on our journeys, in hopes of finally putting a stop to these endless cycles of war.
An Iliad, by Dennis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, based on Homer’s ’Iliad,’ translated by Robert Fagles, directed by Lisa Peterson, is at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Theatre, Boston, through May 4, 2013. For ticket information, visit their website https://artsemerson.org/Online/iliad.