Alaska News

Review: Trojan War comes to life in Perseverance Theatre's 'An Iliad'

Bostin Christopher turns in an impressive performance -- that's an understatement -- in Perseverance Theatre's production "An Iliad." For most of two hours he keeps the audience completely engaged as he delivers the story of Homer's timeless epic in a tour de force of timing and emotion.

This is not a play, per se, but a monolog, a story-telling. It's as if Homer were hanging out at the bar with you, throwing back drinks and saying, "You won't believe what I just saw at Troy. Lemme tell ya."

Christopher's character is identified as The Poet. He enters with a bag, coat and hat, like he just got off the bus. The set looks like a backstage area, with a few scattered props, a ladder, racks of lighting equipment. With a weary sigh he removes his coat and loudly invokes the muses -- in Greek -- and then tells the audience the tale of pride, war, retribution and sympathy.

The narrative is true to the original, unlike certain cinematic adaptations. The Poet recounts meetings and quarrels, the ebb and flow of battle with vocal and physical intensity. Then he reflects on what's happening, evaluates the character of the individuals in his story, puts the Trojan War into a larger historical context. He alternates declamation with directly addressing the listener in a familiar manner, one person to another, as if trying to come to terms with the horror and madness he has witnessed as he slugs shots from bottles in his bag.

Only an actor of Christopher's caliber could pull it off, and even those who are familiar with his formidable talent will be impressed with the energy and craft he brings to this job.

He's assisted by Lucy Peckham as The Musician," a non-speaking role. She comes onstage about 30 minutes into the narrative, a delayed response to the Poet's repeated summoning of the muses -- more properly the Muse -- and adds commentary by means of a cello. Sometimes her music is a melodic interjection or background, sometimes a sound-effect, sometimes a commentary, as when "God Save the Queen" is suggested while the Poet describes British casualties in World War I.

The other performer in the show, a non-human one, is the lighting. The program notes suggest the lights are the collaborative work of Christopher, Peckham, director Art Rotch and stage manager Nikki Dawson. The lights constantly shift, accompanying and enhancing the Poet's moods. In one literally dazzling scene, spotlights glare from the back of the stage straight into the eyes of the audience as the sun shining off Achilles' shield is described. Like most of those in the front rows, I had to cover my face with my hands.

Based on the translation of Robert Fagles, this "Iliad" won an Obie award in 2012 for co-authors Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare. The language of the script is well-wrought, direct and easy to understand. And the plot, of course, has been packing 'em in for 3,000 years.

If there's a weakness, it comes when the authors depart from Homer, turning the storytelling into a sermon, tying the bloodshed of Ilium to more modern wars. The point is suitably made about halfway through when the Poet describes a scene from World War I. It may be overkill when, toward the end, the message is repeated with a litany of every war from the time of Xerxes to now, not all of which match the parameters of Agamemnon's invasion. The inclusion of every crusade by number one through nine is particularly puzzling. About half of what we call "The Crusades" were settled by collegial negotiation, the kind of denouement "An Iliad" seems to argue for.

That, however, is a quibble. The whole experience is a fascinating way to get the gist of Homer's original in one highly entertaining session. A couple of F-words are tossed out, but bring your teenager. If you're a teen, bring your siblings. "An Iliad" may not be a play, but it's excellent theater.

An Iliad

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 2

Where: Sydney Laurence Theatre

?Tickets: $35 at centertix.net

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.

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