An Iliad Review: Dramatic and Modern Retelling of a Greek Classic

At the risk of offending the learned and distinguished professors at Princeton University, Stephen Spinella may well be delivering the most entertaining lecture on campus.

It’s not taking place in a classroom, but on the mainstage at the McCarter Theatre Center.

Spinella has taken on the daunting task of retelling the story of Homer’s “The Iliad” — sort of. This version is actually called “An Iliad,” for it’s a new version co-created by Lisa Peterson, who also directs the one-man show, and actor Denis O’Hare.

Both authors, however, acknowledge that one Princetonian was of immense help — the late professor Robert Fagles, whose translation spurred their free-wheeling adaptation.

Spinella, playing a man simply named “Poet,” starts with a few lines in Greek. While he’ll soon segue into English, he occasionally returns to Greek throughout the 100-minute presentation. He doesn’t bother to re-translate, but by then, a theatergoer might not care; the words themselves are so mellifluous that they’re as welcome as good music.

“An Iliad” is the Poet’s eyewitness account of what happened between Achilles and Hector. And even those who can’t tell Hector from Hannibal Lector won’t get lost in the translation.

“I wish I could show you a picture of Troy,” he says. But in a sense he does, thanks to his own vigorous delivery and through Peterson and O’Hare’s succinctly descriptive words.

That Spinella is in modern dress may seem odd, but matters become odder still when he likens the Trojan War to today’s conflicts. He compares fallen Greek soldiers to “the boys of Nebraska and South Dakota.”

Just as we’ve had Bibles rewritten in colloquial and contemporary language, we now have “An Iliad” that speaks to today.

“Oh, that’s right,” says Poet, after he refers to Coronea, Glisas and Arne. “You don’t know any of these places.”

But what we do know are the horrors of war, and Poet is here to remind us that they’re nothing new.

There’s a great deal of humor, too. Spinella dismisses the esteemed Paris with a shrug while informing us that he “just wasn’t interesting.” When quoting certain other characters that Poet doesn’t like, Spinella editorializes by giving each of them a namby-pamby voice. The body language is in place, too. When he tells of Patroclus wearing Achilles’ armor — which is too big for him — Spinella adopts a demeanor and gait worthy of the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.”

“An Iliad” is played on a bare stage, so lighting designer Scott Zielinski must provide what’s missing — and does so wondrously. He starts by casting two long shadows on Spinella as soon as he walks center stage, and later assaults the audience with lights when a battle is raging. Helping to underline ominous moments is Brian Ellingsen. He’s in a nearby box playing the cello, easily the most moody of instruments, which adds the necessary portentousness.

To use imagery that Shakespeare used about a much later hero, Spinella bestrides the wide stage like a Colossus. And yet he also illustrates the down time in war, when the soldiers have nothing to do but argue about the nature of that bird that just flew by. Eaglet or heron?

Would that the situation could always stay that quiet. But war rages in the final 15 minutes of the show, and Spinella rages with it.

By then, many theatergoers will have decided that this “An Iliad” is the Iliad for them.
An Iliad
Where: Matthews Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton
When: Through Nov. 7. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.

How much: $20-$66. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org


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