On Stage

An Iliad

When war is not the answer

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Thanks to the machinations of a president who believes Nazis have a place in modern-day America and throws out threats of nuclear war as if he’s emceeing a take-no-prisoners boxing match, my emotional state was already precarious when I took my seat for a viewing of iDiOM Theater’s An Iliad last Thursday night at the Sylvia Center for the Arts.

“The world feels so fragile right now,” I wrote in my notebook as I waited for my date to arrive. “I hope this play doesn’t make me cry.”

I’m not sure if that missive was a self-fulfilling prophesy or if I was already on the verge of tears due to the aforementioned atrocities—not to mention that I had earlier that day learned a childhood friend was fighting a personal battle with terminal cancer—but I was in the exact right frame of mind to be deeply affected by the many lessons contained in the contemporary adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad.

In fact, by the time narrator Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao came to the end of attempting to explain the horrors he’d seen on the battlefields of Troy, I’d leaked so much saltwater from my eyes that I could tell my date was getting concerned.

In Lisa Peterson’s and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of the ancient Greek epic, the reminder of war’s human cost—not the celebration of it—takes center stage. And as the poet scarred to the core by the blood that has been shed and the lives and cities that have been lost, Hergenhahn-Zhao is a force to be reckoned with.

From the opening lines—“Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time”—to a scene where the storyteller embodies the bloodlust of battle, to a heartbreaking litany of ancient and modern wars that have been fought over the centuries, the adroit actor seemed to own the role with every ounce of his being.

Through the magic of his delivery, I saw Troy go from an idyllic city to a hellhole. I also envisioned tricky gods, a battle to the death between the warriors Achilles and Hector, grieving widows, and deadly prophecies come to fruition.

“I don’t want to tell you what happens next,” the narrator intones near the end of the play, when the world’s seemingly never-ending addiction to warfare is fully exposed.

But grudgingly, and with the pain of centuries in his eyes, he does. And it is almost too much for him—and for us.

But if you see An Iliad, this is precisely the point where you should watch closely. For without realizing the extent of war’s reach, humankind is destined to repeat history’s mistakes. Even if it makes you sob, don’t look away.

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