by Richard Dodds
It's an analogy from far out in left field, but after watching the illuminating production of An Iliad at Berkeley Rep, I couldn't help but picture a punished Bart Simpson having to write, "I will remember the lessons of Vietnam" on the blackboard over and over. Every day. For 3,000 years. Vietnam actually gets but a single reference in Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's unorthodox reworking of Homer's epic poem, but that was the first war to have personal, bodily relevance for me (the draft was on), and when it ended so ignominiously, "the lessons of Vietnam" rang out with a rueful optimism that that would never happen again.
Our narrator, identified only as the Poet, is a crusty old guy in a thrift-shop overcoat whose worldly possessions seem to be in the abused suitcase he carries. His mission is to roam the world, retelling the story of the seemingly endless battle between the Greeks and Trojans, a story of both men and Gods so wrapped up in personal pride and jealousies that the war seems to sustain itself long after its original purpose is an increasingly dim light in the haze.
"It's a good story," our narrator concedes, but makes no secret of his bone-deep fatigue in retelling it and the toll it takes on his psyche each time he must relive the war. His anguish can be lessened by the screams – screams without sound – that can unexpectedly overtake him. But he makes no mention of these disconcerting interruptions and resumes his story. Henry Woronicz, a journeyman actor befitting the world-weary itinerant character he plays, makes an achingly personal connection in each moment of the 100-minute play.
Peterson and O'Hare are working from a translation of the source material by Robert Fagles, but both serious and lighthearted digressions are common, as the narrator clearly exists in our world as well as all that have come before it. Why did the Trojan War slog onward without gains and diminishing aims? It's like being in a supermarket checkout line, he says. "You've been there 20 minutes, and the other line is moving faster. Do you switch lines now? No, goddamn it, I've been here for 20 minutes, I'm going to wait in this line. I'm not leaving, cause otherwise I've wasted my time."
Countering these wry interludes, Woronicz can also wrap us up in the larger-than-life intrigues of the war as such familiar names as Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, Helen, and Agamemnon do physical, emotional, and vengeful battle. And then, on the spin of a drachma, the narrator is interpreting for us Hector's mother's admonitions. "You know what she's really saying? She's saying, 'I told you so.'"
With bassist Brian Ellingsen providing musical punctuation, director Peterson has cloaked the production in a frugality that gives vivid contrast when emotions, rendered in silence or in the collision of unseen armor, overtake our narrator. And then after his 100 minutes are up, the narrator will pack up his suitcase and find another audience that will listen to and maybe, just maybe learn from his melancholy serenade.
An Iliad will run at Berkeley Rep through Nov. 18. Tickets are $14.50-$77. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.