Theater archives

An Iliad: Homer a Hit?


Sing in me, Muse, and through me offer a review of the man skilled in many ways. Well, the men, actually, Denis O’Hare and Stephen Spinella, who alternate nights as the narrator of An Iliad, adapted by O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson from Homer. (You remember Homer. Blind guy? Loved dactylic hexameter?) Solo performance be now your song, Immortal One, and tell me how these actors fare in presenting the masterpiece.

Wary audience members should know that O’Hare and Peterson don’t provide the whole of the Iliad. Recited unabridged, the poem would run perhaps 20 hours, and the seats at New York Theatre Workshop simply aren’t built to sustain such lengths. And, really, there are only so many times you can hear how a spear tore away a throat before you go dead behind the eyes. Focusing only on Achilles’s retreat from the Greek army and then his eventual return to battle after the death of his friend Patroclus, the adapters have jettisoned more than half the books.

No sane casting director would consider either O’Hare or Spinella for the role of Achilles. They’re both too old, too unmuscled, too camp. Neither portrays the warrior directly, but instead enters the bare stage in the guise of the Poet, a traveling rhapsode, a performer privileged and doomed to repeat this poem of war as entertainment. O’Hare arrives dressed as a Beckett tramp; Spinella as a Greek fisherman. Aided by musician Brian Ellingsen, they cycle through the story’s major figures: Achilles, Priam, Helen, Hector, Paris, etc. Using the same script, they render the ancient doings familiar and colloquial. O’Hare provides an archer and angrier take on the piece; Spinella a more easeful one, despite his spitting.

In terms of shortening the playing length and focusing on the plot, Peterson and O’Hare have done fine work. Yet they’ve also rendered the text more schematic, turning a complicated and ambivalent poem into a straightforward antiwar ode. In the books that they skip, not a lot happens in terms of action, but much occurs by way of philosophy and moral choice. Denuded of this context, the work is a slighter one. What’s that, Muse? You say it still makes for a fine night out? So the will of Dionysus was accomplished.