It’s against my religion to write a rave, yet still, here I go.
The best theater exists not just as a spectacle kept at distance, but invades and ignites the imagination of the audience. It takes a truly special piece of theater to inspire the audience to really do this, but this is when theater is transcendent. It belongs not to the performers, the designers, or the director, but to the audience, becoming larger than any of them could have possibly planned. It is generous. This is the level of work happening in An Iliad, which opened Saturday night at Court Theatre.
It’s a one-man retelling of Homer’s epic, but it’s a modern war-painting. The man, in the program as “the poet,” played by Timothy Edward Kane, harrowed by and in awe of his experience in the Trojan War, seems to have travelled from place to place since Greek times telling the story that he can’t get out of his head. Co-playwright Lisa Peterson—who wrote the play with Denis O’Hare of HBO’s True Blood, who has first hand experience of the Trojan War, which he witnessed undercover, alias Ajax, only recently revealed to be a vampire—imagined the poet as “an embedded journalist… [who] has lived for 3.200 years and needs to keep telling the story of this event.” This poet tells a tale of the horrors of war, and the front lines. A familiar story, the ubiquitous anti-war play, except that I’ve never seen a play like this do justice to the other side. He’s horrified by the war, but he also revels in it. He gets consumed by rage and bloodlust as often as by sorrow and remorse. “That’s why I don’t do this,” he says, ashamed.
He hates it and revels in this rage simultaneously and in the process, makes the most convincing argument I have seen about why it is so impossible for humanity to learn from its mistakes. No matter what you know, what you see, or how hard you try to let your rage go, like Achilles: in the moment, all of us non-gods get carried away by our pride, or passion, or sense of injustice, or entitlement. He makes me feel complicit.
What makes all of it work is Kane’s vulnerable and captivating performance. He has an extraordinary presence because he is present in every word he says. Simple, humble, silly even, and yet he holds nothing back. I never doubted him when he loses control into his rage. We remember how easily that happens to us humans, even to good men like Hektor. He inhabits each of the characters in the story with ease and specificity, and yet has a strong personality of his own. He is an Everyman, in some ways, simultaneously Achilles himself and the lowest boot cleaner in the army.
The most powerful part of Kane’s performance is how strong his need is to tell this story. That need to finish the whole thing, to get us to understand, propels him through moments of pain, strife, grief, and tears and keeps the story moving and alive. He is a master storyteller, and he paints an incredible picture in our imagination so that we can share his experience of the events, rather than just watch him relive it.
The story he tells is about the horrors of death, but also about the value of life. I’m reminded of the scene in the Odyssey—the story the poet says is so gruesome that even he will not tell it— the scene where Odysseus meets the spirit of Achilles in the underworld and Achilles said he would rather be the lowest slave than be king in glory over “all these dead men that have done with life.”
Todd Rosenthal—the Tony-award-winning set designer of August: Osage County—needs no more kudos, but gets some anyway for a set that is forgotten, decayed, and yet, somehow, timeless. He asks, “Is it a pool? Is it an ancient temple? Is it an ancient bath?” We don’t know. But it is old, and it has deep, unassuming power, the same deep, unassuming power pervades the whole piece. This kind of experience does not enter with fanfare and pyrotechnics, but sneaks in quietly and then blows you away.
Sometimes, I’m seduced by the stimu-philia of the digital age, and I forget how important simplicity is, and I stop believing in its power. Or I think that maybe simplicity had power in olden times, the good old days, when we enjoyed a days work, and knew the value of a dollar. This production proves that it’s still possible to reach people deeply and work on their imaginations, the same way the Greeks did it, the same way Shakespeare did it, with words. It is about the actor seeing something and sharing that vision with the audience. Like the poet asks throughout An Iliad, “Do you see?”
Someone recently told me that he thought it was the young generation’s duty to usher in a second digital renaissance, and maybe in part it is. But this play proposes another goal: working towards true communication, where we work to understand each other (and not in a wishy-washy way!) and to let our rage go in service of peace. Technology is so powerful that any war could well mean the annihilation of the human race, the same way Constantinople was burnt, as the poet describes. Or Hiroshima.
This production made me remember why I love the theater, what it is capable of, and why we have to keep doing it, right now.
An Iliad runs at Court Theater until December 11. It is directed by Artistic Director Charles Newell. Photo credit Michael Brosilow. Go see it right now.