Ancient war entreats modern audiences

by Hallie Huffaker | 9/16/14 3:06pm

The Hopkins Center kicks off its “World War I Reconsidered” series this evening with “An Iliad,” a one-person dramatic reading based on Homer’s epic poem. “An Iliad” is one of several works that will mark the Great War’s centennial anniversary and prompt audiences to consider the war in new ways.

Acted by Denis O’Hare, of “True Blood” fame and a Tony Award recipient for the play “Take Me Out,” and directed by Lisa Peterson, an Obie Award winner and recipient of several Drama-Logue Awards, the Wednesday and Thursday evening performances will bring to life Homer’s epic poem, with enhancement from sound and lighting effects. O’Hare will be accompanied by a bass player but few stage props.

The show includes an original script based on Homer’s verse and dramatic improvisation by O’Hare. The overall tone is conversational, with some translated verses and original Greek interspersed.

Peterson and O’Hare conceived of the show in 2005, wanting to provide contemporary viewers a novel treatment of the classic work, Peterson said. The show’s reliance on improvisation infuses the performance with fresh energy and harkens back to the tradition of oral storytelling, O’Hare said.

“It seems as though the storyteller is sharing a new ‘Iliad’ each night,” Peterson said. “This one is different from last night’s ‘Iliad’ and will be different from tomorrow’s.”

In “An Iliad,” O’Hare plays the role of an omniscient storyteller, as old as mankind, doomed to wander the earth until man fights his last war. Over his lifetime, he has witnessed war’s power to change and destruct communities and landscapes.

“Denis [O’Hare]’s mantra is that war is a waste, and mine is that, yet it is still in our nature,” Peterson said. “We want the audience to think about human nature and just have a shared moment of recognition.”

The performance is one-third Homer’s words and two-thirds improvisation, Peterson said. As they prepared for the show, Peterson said she and O’Hare recorded themselves improvising and tried to paraphrase some of Homer’s metaphors with their own words.

She and O’Hare developed the show at the New York Theater Workshop in East Village, New York, and performed an early version of “An Iliad” on campus in 2009 as part of the New York Theater Workshop’s summer residency program at the Hop.

Classics professor Roberta Stewart, who runs a classics book group for veterans in the Upper Valley, said each audience member can take something different from Homer’s words. Stewart wrote a brief introductory essay for the play’s program, which describes how veterans in her book group have related to the classic texts.

“Each of my readers creates his or her own ‘Iliad’ or ‘Odyssey’ when they read it,” she said.

Steward called the early version performance of “An Iliad” on campus in 2009 a “wonderful performance.”

History professor Peggy Darrow, who also wrote a short essay for the show’s program, described a historical connection between soldiers fighting in World War I and the classical text, as many soldiers were familiar with “The Iliad” and referenced scenes from it in their wartime diaries.

Hop programming coordinator Margaret Lawrence, who organized the World War I series, said that the breadth of the Hop’s scheduled programs — theater, music and film pieces — bring to life aspects of the Great War with new inflections for modern audiences. The Hop has scheduled panel discussions and commissioned essays to supplement the series’ artistic performances, she said.

“It’s hard to understand for our generations how much the world changed because of World War I, and there are so many fascinating ways of looking at that change,” Lawrence said. “This theme for us is not going to be so much about delivering information as stepping into an understanding of the people and feelings of the war.”

The series also features a chamber music performance by the Emerson String Quartet on Oct. 21, a piano performance by Sally Pinkas on Nov. 11 and a joint chamber music and film piece between the Kronos Quartet and filmmaker Bill Morrison on Feb. 10.