How much can a single great performance carry a whole production? That question is put to the test in Taffety Punk’s staging of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad, a semi-contemporized take on Homer’s classic tale of the Trojan War featuring a remarkable star turn from Esther Williamson. But frustrating staging and design choices make it unnecessarily difficult for the audience to appreciate her performance.
Williamson is The Poet, channeling millennia of traditional oral historians and storytellers and their role in communicating the various horrors or glorious of war.
Williamson is an energetic, intense performer. Her quick changes between characters are smooth like butter. Her descriptions of beatific cities and war-ravaged landscapes are equally enrapturing.
Director Dan Crane has chosen to stage the performance alley style, with audience unequally split along two sides of the space. Alley is always a difficult configuration to stage in. Without very precise placement of bodies in the playing space at least half of the audience is going to miss any particular moment of action on stage.
With a solo show like An Iliad, this effect is increased, especially given that Crane often positions Williamson dead center. I spent at least 40 percent of the 90-minute runtime looking at the back of Williamson’s head, getting to know every detail of her intricately braided ponytail.
A play like An Iliad is driven by audience connection with the storyteller. It’s about intimacy and trust. An Iliad is a thick text. A lot of detailed information about battles, cultures, and individual characters has to be communicated by Williamson alone through speech and movement. When I can’t see her face, that connection is severely damaged and at times outright broken.
Despite Williamson’s energy, her performance is hamstrung right from the start because the audience is often denied access to her important tools of storytelling. There were too many moments where I straight up lost the narrative thread, or got confused as to what character she was portraying, and had to play catch up when I could reconnect visually with her performance.
closes October 22, 2016
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Further complicating matters is that Crane has chosen to add a live musician to the show to provide soundtrack to the various battles Williamson describes. This could have been very cool if it had been integrated smoothly, but Crane chooses to place the musician in a far corner of the space behind half the audience. This mostly serves to pull even more attention away from Williamson’s performance, and at times even drown her out. I will say that the night’s musician, Erin McCarley, played well and there were moments when her underscoring gelled well with Williamson’s performance and these moments were highlights of the night. It should be noted that two members of the band Hand Grenade Job will alternate performance nights.
The technical errors here are frustrating because so much of An Iliad works like gangbusters. Crista Noel Smith has conceived a lovely sandscape for Williamson to create and reshape over the course of the play. And when the whole audience can see the same show, Williamson’s a wonder. I’m a big fan of Taffety Punk’s aesthetic and style. I love their punk-influenced, progressive takes on classics and their commitment to affordability. Unfortunately An Iliad is too often a production at war against its own story.
An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. Directed by Dan Crane. Composers/Musicians: Erin McCarley and Beck Levy . Set, Prop, and Costume Design: Crista Noel Smith . Movement Choreographer: Dody DiSanto . Lighting Design: Paul Callahan . Produced by Taffety Punk . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.