Studio Theatre’s An Iliad as seen by its director and performer

Nearly 3,000 years after Homer first penned and, possibly, performed The Iliad, co-authors Lisa Peterson and the actor Denis O’Hare created a solo play from Homer’s ode to larger than life warriors, Olympian gods and man’s weakness for violence. Their adaptation is an intimate theatrical piece which returns to the oral tradition of a poet sharing the story with an audience.

After a regional premiere and subsequent productions in theatres across the U.S., An Iliad comes to Studio Theatre through January 13, 2013, directed by David Muse and starring Scott Parkinson as the Poet.

Muse, Studio’s artistic director since 2010, most recently directed the Studio productions of Dirt, Bachelorette, The Habit of Art and Venus in Fur. Parkinson is an award-winning actor who recently performed the title role in Hamlet for Chicago’s Writer’s Theatre. He has performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company – Julius Caesar and The Persians – as well as Tom Stoppard’s three part The Coast of Utopia on Broadway.

david muse studio theatre

David Muse

Are we back to the basics with An Iliad?

David Muse:  In the theatre we often glibly use the term ‘storytelling.’ We talk about the stories that we tell and we’ll call almost any play a story. Sometimes I think the word gets overused, but An Iliad is most definitely “back to the basics” storytelling. It’s all about the relationship between an actor and his audience and the tools are simple: a story, an actor, some poetry, and some music.

This hearkens back to the oral tradition …

David:  Yes, when most of us think about the Iliad, we think about a book, we think about a poem, or something you study in your western civilization class. And we don’t think of a performance, but really that’s what the Iliad is: it’s a script. It grew out of a tradition of oral performance and it was recited aloud. So in a way, this production is an attempt to figure out how we might return that script to its performative origins.

Scott in The Iliad at Studio Theatre

Scott Parkinson in The Iliad at Studio Theatre (Photo: Theodore Wolff)

Scott Parkinson:  Scholars think that Homer, if he existed, was this traveling poet/performer who had this entire thing in his brain. I think that is the kind of spirit Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson have tried to create with taking one actor and this ancient story, but also make it very immediate and very real to a contemporary audience.

How does the play work?

David:  The conceit of the show is this storyteller, poet, maybe Homer himself, [who] is cursed and bound to continue telling the story as long as people still need to hear it. So the idea is this storyteller will never disappear until this story ceases to have something to say to us. Unfortunately we’re all afraid the story teller’s never going to go away, because on a most basic level the poem is just about what it is inside human beings that causes them to go to war with each other. It’s unlikely that we’re ever going to stop hearing about that.

Since this is an adaptation of a huge piece, how much of Homer is in the play?

David:  About half the play is from the actual Iliad and half that’s a contemporary riff on what’s going on in the story. Our storyteller is going in and out reciting sections of the Iliad and getting distracted and needing to provide some context, filling some parts in.

All in an attempt to make a very immediate connection with his audience and to make sure this doesn’t feel merely like an ancient tale – that it feels like something they can relate to very directly.

At the same time it is not a dumbing down of the classic, but an attempt to make a direct connection between the storyteller and the audience who is there to hear the story.

Scott:  That’s one of the wonderful things about the script; the poet is always trying to make it modern.

Is the poet a separate character or an extension of you?

Scott: I think it’s a little bit of both. The challenge and reward of this script is it doesn’t tell you anything too definitive about this man in terms of who he is. There’s a suggestion that he’s immortal – that he’s been around since the Trojan War, at least. There are suggestions that he was in the Greek army with Agamemnon as his commander, so he seems to have been an eyewitness, talking in terms of ‘I was there.’  There is also the suggestion that he has been telling this story throughout history and that one day he won’t have to tell the story anymore.

So you get some latitude as an actor?

Scott:  Yes, that’s kind of it. It leaves lots to the actor’s imagination. I get to make up this guy and in the process of doing that I get to bring something of myself into it, in terms of my own feelings about war, my own personal relationships.

David:  The poet isn’t just a blank slate or a neutral storyteller who is there to deliver someone else’s story and play several characters within it. He has a distinct personality himself. You get a sense that there’s a history there that you get a little window into. There is a quirkiness and there’s a sense of humor. Actually I believe that of all the characters that are on the stage, and Scott plays about 13 over the course of the play, the most interesting one is the poet himself.

How did you go about rehearsing the piece?

David: “It was certainly an intense working relationship. We found it took a surprising amount of concentration. Luckily, Scott and I have worked together before and really admire each other and respect one another, so that made it easier and we could begin from a place of trust. Scott is the kind of actor who is both self-generative and collaborative. If I had a notion, he was happy to try it out, there was never a sense of second guessing what I’m asking him to do. On the other hand, he can come up with things on his own.

Scott: David and I seem to work together very well. He would come out with a carefully considered, concise idea and it always made sense to me and it always helped me go deeper with the storytelling.

We talked about what our choices were going to be about who the Poet is, and how to strike that tone between the poem itself and the chatty nature of the poet when he starts talking to the audience. How much to embody the characters within the Iliad when they come about. Is it a complete transformation or is it just the suggestion of a character?

Once we added the musician, Rebecca Landell, we had to ask how the music can create characters in the play, when should the music stop and how do we best use the music to support what I’m doing.

How is the play structured, going from poet to the characters?

Scott:  There are actual scenes in the play between different characters from the poem, like the fight between Achilles and Agamemnon – the kind of main thing in the poem that starts it going, this big fight between these two Greeks.

There’s a scene between Hector and his wife Andromache, a scene between Patroclus and Achilles, and others. In all the scenes, I have to embody both characters and I had to ask the same questions I would ask if I were playing just one of those characters, I have to ask what does this character want, what does this character need, what are they not getting. And then we try to act all that out; and act out the battle scenes in ways that are exciting.

Is An Iliad still a war story?

David: The short answer is, ‘Yes, it is definitely a war story.’

The longer answer is it’s not really an anti-war story. It’s a poem about war and as part of that it shows some of the worst, most shameful aspects of human behavior and also some of the best – sort of the best and worst part of our natures. Both natures emerge during war. So, it’s not just a bleak slog through a terrible war, even though there are definitely things about it that are hard to listen to but at moments it is also a celebration of the best part of human nature.

Scott: It is about war, but I hope it’s wide-ranging enough that people take more than one thing away from it. When I saw it in New York, I was so moved by the ending. The poem is really about the rage of this man, Achilles. At the end of the poem, he lets go of the rage and finally allows himself to empathize with the enemy and gives the enemy what they want.

An Iliad
Scheduled to close January 13, 2013
Studio Theatre
Tickets: $39 – $61
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets or call 202-332-3300

When that moment was dramatized, for me, it was so profoundly moving in the idea that we as a human race might be capable of one day evolving beyond our worst impulses – towards rage, towards violence – that there is a possibility if we can just step outside long enough and empathize with the other.

What may surprise people about An Iliad?

David: It will absolutely blow the dust off of any library bound notion you may have about the Iliad and it will remind its audience that this story is thrilling and is unimaginably dramatic. And it is much more like an action movie than some dry old book that we were assigned in college.

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Jeff continues with background on Homer and The Iliad:

“Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.”                    -  Homer, The Iliad

The word ‘iliad’ literally means “poem about Ilium.” Ilium, of course, is another term for Troy, the ancient and legendary city on the Aegean Sea. In the fifth century B.C., Homer’s epic was dubbed The Iliad by the Greek historian Herodotus.

Little is known about the poet Homer. Thought to have been born around 750 B.C., most historians agree he left of with two of western civilizations oldest and greatest works, The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Scholars surmise the Iliad was performed originally by Homer himself in the oral tradition. Some believe, based on clues in the poems, that Homer may have been a blind poet.

Since it was spoken and sung, it was not originally a written work, it is thought to have been set down in writing over a fifty year time span. Bernard Knox, in his introduction to Fagles’ translation of the Iliad, stated the most likely composition date is 725 to 675 B.C., which coincides with the earliest Greek alphabetic writing.

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