Can you imagine the massing of hundreds of thousands of men on a battle field? They win and lose battles. Some fight each other one on one, some dying and some decrying the reason they are at war. Weary but prideful of their commitment to a cause they have mostly forgotten, they fill up the larger (Matthews Theater) stage of the McCarter Theater. These men exercise a lot of power and presence without actually being seen in this ambitiously authoritative one-man re-telling of Homer’s epic poem that details the cause and effect of the nine-year assault by the Greeks on the city of Troy.
A traveling singer/poet (Stephen Spinella,) and unlike the presumably blind Homer, enters what appears to be a cavernous almost empty warehouse. He puts down his suitcase, removes his heavy overcoat that he hangs on a hook. He comes towards us and begins with a little preparatory statement spoken in Greek. With a little show of embarrassment, he continues in English. For him, it’s another opening, another show, another booking. His well-worn attire suggests that he has been on the road, call it a road show, but he isn’t noticeably tired. He is rather anxious to get going with the dramatic story that he has been telling to those who would listen for perhaps thousands of years in such out-of-town burbs as Babylon, Alexandria, Mycenae etc.
We soon figure out that he is addressing us from different perspectives, crisscrossing historical, mythological and topical angles: the timelessness of Homer’s perspective, the timeliness of Robert Fagles’s lauded lyrical translation, and the witty contemporary resonance imposed on it by co-writers Lisa Peterson (the play’s director) and Denis O’Hare (who had originally intended to play the role of the narrator but is currently in rehearsal for a Broadway play).
Be assured that Spinella, the superb multi-award-winning actor (perhaps most notably in the original “Angels in America” company) takes immediate control and command of every facet of this demanding narrative-driven play. And Fagles, the famed late professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton University, would conceivably be pleased as well to see how his scholarship inspired Peterson and O'Hare.
As the poet begins the story by recalling the men and the many ancient cities that have been enlisted to help the Greeks, the litany of names suddenly resounds with “the boys of Nebraska, and South Dakota, the twangy boys of Memphis, the boys of San Diego, Palo Alto” etc. We are suddenly catapulted into the present for the moment and as we will be later at selected moments to see a string of analogies devised to connect Homer’s version through the contemporary illusions and vocabulary (such as a well placed four-letter word) by Peterson and O’Hare.
Spinella spins the familiar story, about the abduction of Helen of Troy and how the Greeks out-foxed the Trojans by getting into their city inside a wooden horse, with an ingratiating intensity and a wryly dispatched air of cynicism. One might assume that the poet is also buoyed by the amount of Tequila he downs during the course of his story-telling. Oops, the bit about the wooden horse is judiciously omitted, but there is a lot of time and detail devoted to those arch adversarial combatants, the self-serving Greek heel Achilles and the more romantically inclined family man Hector of Troy.
There’s the prerequisite amount of blood and guts spilled throughout the 110 minutes that the story takes to unravel. But it would not be effective without the unfaltering energy that drives Spinella’s performance. He gives distinct but not overcooked impersonations of the opposing kings Priam of Troy and Agamemnon of Argos, as well as Achilles and Hector, Hector’s wife Andromache, and the ever alluring Helen, among others.
Traversing the stage while making constant use of the few pieces of furniture in set designer Rachel Hauck’s looming gloomy space, Spinella is as much a man in motion as he is a man with a mouthful. He also serves as a philosophical soothsayer who is not afraid to remind us how easy it is for warriors who are trained to kill to easily turn their patriotism, camaraderie, and sense of loyalty into pure unadulterated rage with an inhuman disregard for life. One has only to see the current reports being leaked about the conduct of our soldiers to see that history is sadly being repeated. The most stunning and saddening moment in the play occurs as the poet recalls what seems like every war in every part of the world since the beginning of recorded time and without taking a breath.
A bass fiddle player (Brian Ellingsen) is perched in one of the theater boxes and adds something best described as musical punctuation/sound effects composed by Mark Bennett). There are those who don’t particularly like one-person shows and feel cheated by minimal production values. I can understand this feeling, but director Peterson has done quite a reasonable job of keeping the narrative in motion. And the highly effective lighting design by Scott Zielinski is an important atmospheric enhancement. More importantly this modernization of perhaps the earliest and most grimly realistic anti-war story war story in all of classic literature is never boring. Instead, it bores its way into your heart and mind and forces us to think and wonder if we will ever learn from the past.
“An Iliad,” Matthews Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, November 7. 609-258-6524.