Tuesday, May 28, 2013

AN ILIAD • Upstream Theater

Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare adapted An Iliad from Homer's epic poem, The Iliad, but the director's notes mention that the two shouldn't be confused.  In this powerful production from Upstream Theater, and under Patrick Siler's excellent direction, the retelling of this ancient story of the Trojan War is told with a contemporary voice that mourns the losses, cheers the heroics, curses the gods and wonders if man will ever evolve beyond the cycle of ruthless, bloody conflict.
After walking down the aisle and up onto the stage, The Poet (a remarkable Jerry Vogel) puts down his suitcase, opens a wooden box, takes out a couple of candles and incense, and asks for inspiration from the Muses, and his accompanying musician (Farshid Soltanshahi), to give him the strength to tell his tale.  He says he's been telling it for ages.

Jerry Vogel (The Poet).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
"What makes men fight with such rage?", he asks.  According to him, the gods do.  Whether for sport or spite, only the gods could be responsible for a decade long war that started because someone's wife was kidnapped.  Our storyteller, who occasionally steps in to vividly play the roles of various characters, begins to give us his account of the legendary stories of the Greek warrior Achilles and his magnificent shield, Hector the Trojan prince, Paris, Helen, and the fickle gods and goddesses who intervene to protect the favored and hinder the unfavored.  Though the poem has been greatly whittled down, lines from the original text are scattered here and there, but our Poet narrates the stories within a modern context, conversational in tone, and with a deeply personal perspective.  He compares bone-weary troops and their steadfast refusal to give up after years of hopeless battle, to standing in a supermarket line for 20 minutes, even when a new register opens up.  You've waited this long, if you switch lines now you will have just wasted your time.

Jerry Vogel (The Poet).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Pouring himself shots throughout, The Poet's descriptions of everything from the vision of hundreds of Greek ships filled with countless young men, to the grief stricken Priam and his quest for the body of his son, draw contemporary parallels often pointing to the seemingly inevitable inclination of men towards rage, whether on a battlefield, or behind the wheel of a car.  At one point, The Poet recites significant battles from Troy up to the current conflicts of Iraq and Syria.  It's a dizzying list, and The Poet drenches the names of each of these wars in heartbreak.  He admits to us that every time he sings this song, he hopes it’s the last time.

Vogel is exceptional as The Poet.  During the course of the 90 or so minutes (with no intermission), he relates intimately to the audience, roaming down the aisles, sometimes posing questions to us, making eye-contact with us, yet he fills the climatic moments of the story with fury, the descriptions of littered battlefields with sadness, and the beauty of Troy before the war with reverence -- fluidly and without any pretension.  Patrick Huber's scenic design was minimal and effective with a desk and chair, blackboard, a box, and wall hangings depicting battle scenes from the war.  Joseph W. Clapper's dynamic lighting design was beautiful and ominous, dramatically shifting in color and intensity with the mood, and the wonderful accompanying music by Soltanshahi also contributed a great deal, adding a dramatic underscore to the telling.

Jerry Vogel (The Poet).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Whether you're familiar with "The Iliad" or not, The Poet's story is one worth hearing, with questions worth pondering, in a production worth seeing.  It's playing until the 9th.


Adapted by Lisa Peterson & Denis O'Hare
Translated by Robert Fagles
Directed by Patrick Siler
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through June 9 | tickets: $20 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, final Sunday at 3pm

Jerry Vogel* (The Poet).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Patrick Huber; lighting design by Joseph W. Clapper; costume design by Katie Donovan; stage manager, Shannon B. Sturgis.

Composer and musician, Farshid Soltanshahi.


  1. Andrea!
    It is the same show! Denis O'Hare is the actor from True Blood who performed this in Boston. I heard him interviewed on On Point which is based out of WGBH Boston. Thanks so much for the tip!

  2. My pleasure! Jerry Vogel is kicking some major butt in the show. I hope you can check it out if you have any time!