The Muse must have taken a night off when Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare crafted An Iliad, which refashions Homer’s epic poem into a didactic one-person show. The monologue operates within the Bardic tradition of its predecessor, and it shows how little the topics of storytelling, and societal rot, have evolved over the course of several millennia. But while Homer sang of the Trojan War’s tragedies in poetry, this adaptation, and the Arden Theatre’s current production, operate in prose.
Preventable and constant
This is not to say that the message conveyed by Peterson and O’Hare—to say nothing of Homer—isn’t important. If anything, the strong anti-war sentiment that runs through the play has only grown more fervent since I last saw it locally in 2016 (when it was produced by Lantern Theater Company), or since the work itself first appeared a decade ago. When The Poet (Mary Tuomanen) rattles off a near-endless list of conflicts stretching back to the beginning of time, the audience confronts the sad knowledge that the list has grown to include recent battles, and will continue to multiply well into the future.
That is the thesis of An Iliad: war is barbaric, preventable, and constant. “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time,” The Poet opines as she hunkers down to sing it once more. Fat chance.
No one can, or should, argue the sad truth of this. But as a work of dramatic literature, this adaptation establishes few new stakes, and Peterson and O’Hare’s colloquial script certainly doesn’t improve upon its predecessor. Allusions to Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan are not unwarranted, but they happen cyclically and predictably across the intermission-less 90-minute running time. This underlines a flaw in the dramaturgy: a point is never made once if it can be driven home ad infinitum.
A contemporary affect
The success of this piece relies on a charismatic yet probing central performer. Lantern’s production had that in Peter DeLaurier, who conveyed the haunted weight carried by a person condemned to recount horrific events he could not change. Even when tension flagged in the script, DeLaurier was able to bring the right balance of humor and rueful resignation to the assignment.
Tuomanen’s performance is often too arch and self-aware to have the same effect. She never loses herself inside the story her Poet struggles to tell. Nor does she ever fully embody the various characters who pepper the poem. Whether she’s slipping under the skin of the ancient king Priam, the ruthless warrior Achilles, or the resigned Andromache, Tuomanen’s overall affect remains contemporary and unchanging.
The drab physical production adds little to the drama. Director Rebecca Wright confines Tuomanen to a small square of the Horan Studio Theatre, which the actress paces repetitively, stopping only to occasionally grab a handful of dirt and hurl it to the ground. (I hope the Arden has a good Hoover on standby.) Jillian Keys’s scenic design—various sails, oil drums, and discarded tires—looks handsome, like a ship encased in a glass bottle, but it exudes a feeling of inertia as Tuomanen rarely engages her surroundings.
As with the Lantern’s previous production, the Arden’s assumption inserts musical underscoring, some of which is performed live by Jordan McCree. McCree can be a captivating presence onstage, and some of his compositions strike the right unsettling tone to complement the weighty story. At other times, the soundtrack becomes intrusive, or it doesn’t cohere—this is particularly the case with repeated ancient Greek chants, which are probably designed to sound ritualistic but mostly seem gimmicky.
We already know that this production won’t be the last time The Poet sings this particular song: the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival announced recently that An Iliad would be part of its upcoming summer season. Its popularity is understandable, since it offers an actor a master-class showcase and an audience the opportunity to feel politically righteous. This audience member, however, has heard it once too often.
What, When, Where
An Iliad. By Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. Based on Homer’s The Iliad, as translated by Robert Fagles. Directed by Rebecca Wright. Arden Theatre Company. Through December 15, 2019 at the Bob and Selma Horan Studio Theatre, 62 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
The Bob and Selma Horan Studio Theatre is a general-admission venue. Patrons who require wheelchair or other accessible seating should call the box office in advance of their performance to reserve an accessible seating location.