A bright young team of theater professionals brings Homer’s epic to Washington for a fresh look at An Iliad, and the production packs a powerful punch.
It may be just in time. Or maybe not, as our country’s leadership dangles the possibility of yet another war – and this one with sides loaded with nuclear warheads promises to be a doozy.
On Saturday night in a darkened lab theatre on H Street NE, one young man stood on the shoulders of a mighty writer and he may be all we have between man’s penchant for self-destruction and Homer’s wake-up.
The solo show, an adaptation of Homer’s Trojan War epic by New York director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare, was first produced in the Big Apple in 2012 at New York Theatre Workshop and subsequently was remounted for a run in D.C. at Studio Theatre in 2013. Minneapolis Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis also produced it as a star turn for stellar actor and company member Stephen Yoakam.
In all those productions, the actors chosen to deliver the show were either grizzled to look old or were seasoned performers who suggested the Homeric bard himself, crusty and battle-hardened. The young team now at Atlas Theatre has brought us an entirely new take.
Iason Togias, a recent graduate on the brink of a most promising professional career, delivers the story as a young man, possibly an ardent and articulate classical academic, recently conscripted in a war he had not voted for. It brings fresh urgency and something that at times feels heartbreaking.
I first saw Iason Togias when he was fifteen in a local high school production. Even then he was a standout. Obviously, others also recognized both his laser-like focus and primal joy at being on stage for he has garnered quite the educational pedigree with Yale University and Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA.)
closes June 9, 2018
Details and tickets
Togias seems at first reluctant to share the story with us. The young man brings us into his struggle. “Oh Muse, do not make me do this alone.” He hesitates. “I remember… a lot of it.” Can he remember all the names, all those that gathered under Troy? The numbers of people sent, all those peoples gathered into a war – for what again?
Then he launches into the story, starting with the famous lines from Robert Fagles’ muscular and musical translation, “Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.”
“So many ships.” A vulnerable voice, disbelieving this can happen. And we are taken into the ninth year of a war.
He begins to list the towns and islands from which the Greeks gathered their floating army. The narrator stops himself, “But that’s right, you people don’t know any of these places.” Instead, he inserts towns, communities from all over America.
“I knew these boys,” the narrator says, and Togias does seem to know them – not as an old man but a young hungry and idealistic young man who wanted to challenge himself and who then signed up to fight but got more than he bargained for. “You get the point.”
Exhaustion and misery and loneliness. As for the causes, he sketches in the gods on both sides and the famous story of Helen of Troy, the face that launched all those ships. “It’s always something.”
Bloodied field covered in boys. Togias takes the audience into a private time out, reminding us of trenches on another particularly bad day in another war. Hundred years ago we were in 1918. He lists the names, “Tom, Brendan…” Togias makes us believe he sees them all, classmates.
Back and forth in time, he is a bard telling and enacting the story but with modern asides, assisted by only an abrupt shift of lighting, where dark reddish shadows switch to harsh white light to help the audience and actor.
Thanks to Fagles, the piece is written, like its original, to be sung. We get snippets of ancient Greek thrown in. Togias has got plenty packed in his arsenal, that is his actor’s suitcase. First of all he’s Greek, right. When he launches into classical Greek, it seems perfectly natural. He’s got it in his DNA.
Intoning in Greek or English enables Togias to demonstrate his strong classical actor training— you can hear a Hamlet, a Richard, even a Lear-in-training there. He has developed the breath control and the placement to ride language. Thankfully, he never blows raw-voiced which we all too often experience in TV-trained acting.
Togias is up to the task to people the stage, stepping into the shoes of the key figures in the epic story. To personify Achilles, the genius, the greatest warrior who ever lived, Togias seems to change size, puff up larger than life.
Achilles stands up to Agamemnon who wants to take his war prize Briseis, whom Achilles is particularly fond of, and hurls at his commander, “You dogface!” He rages on. Then, Achilles goes off to sulk.
He seems to falter in describing Hector. How can you describe a good man? Good father. Good husband. Good son. He seems in awe, and we can feel the dramatic truth in this, a young man not able to see deeply yet into the experience of a career soldier and mature man having shared a deep marriage with his wife with whom they are raising a beloved son.
As for Paris, Togias presents him as Hector’s weak, vacillating younger brother. He tells us Paris is not really important to the story, and he insists he is not that interesting. (I don’t know, he was the one who really turned from fighting. He’s the one that given a choice chooses love over political power.)
Through the narrator we also meet Hector’s mother Hecuba. And Helen, that face. “Oh …bitch that I am… I only wish I had been the wife of a better man?” Moral relativity in trying times? Survival mechanism of an unmoored victim? A wanton slut who lives carelessly, uncaring of the lives cut down around her on both sides? Togias makes a strong choice. And Togias also makes Andromache, Hector’s wife, a compelling figure.
Some of the best theatrical work, as in the epic poem, is in depicting the small domestic scenes. When Hector meets his wife, Andromache, he drops his guard and speaks truth. “It’s a bad day for us.” The actor conveys the depth of feeling in what isn’t spoken between them.
A climactic scene is the battle in which appears Patroclus, the killing machine, comes in Achilles’ place and armor to rally the Greeks.
Togias’ character starts describing the battle so steeped in blood, and then he gets caught up in the bloodlust, only finally to interrupt the proceedings and apologize. He admits this is why he doesn’t tell the story anymore.The cost is so great.
This is a true war play, showing not just the horrors but the seduction of war, the camaraderie, and the many reasons we have given ourselves to justify war-making. It also shows how fighting changes us, makes us something other than human, where hacking and killing feel so good and where even that good man Hector is guilty of atrocities.
Just with his voice and body on a bare stage, Togias gives us something more powerful than any action film. Inspiring our own imagination, he brings all in the audience into the collaboration just as Homer did with his audience. We see the blood, we conjure the cleaving of bone and muscle and flesh. We weep at the carnage we have wrought.
The playwrights even shine a light on our own absurdity when the monologue shifts to a supermarket checkout where your line gets stuck and you wonder if you should switch lines but, “No goddamnit. This is your line.” And yes, that’s what destiny seems to add up to.
Matt Chilton has produced a new score for this production and he accompanies the performance onstage. While clearly thought through by an accomplished musician and this cohort offered moral as well as auditory support, there seemed more music than there needed to be. The bass added luster and droning to the underscoring of poetry but sometimes created so much texture and even sound effects that at times the music felt unnecessary or even disruptive.
The writing of this play has big ambitions, far beyond bringing to life Homer’s Trojan War. At one point the narrator must list every war in chronology. The actor dumps files on the floor of all the wars historically documented, suddenly becoming a modern academic researcher making a case for humanity.
What a play, and what a vehicle for Iason Togias!
An Iliad written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. Directed by Conor Bagley. Composition by Matt Chilton. Production designed by Daniel Prosky. Produced by Conor Bagley and Suzannah Clark. Presented at Atlas Performing Arts Center With Iason Togias and Matt Chilton. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.