BWW Reviews: The Rep Rages for the Poetic Beauty and Horror of War in AN ILIAD
If ever there were a play to illuminate the theater's power to relate human truth, this could be An Iliad. If ever there were an actor to relate Homer's ancient story through poetry, this surely could be James DeVita, an exceptioanl actor from the Resident Company at American Players Theatre. Place this pair in The Milwaukee Rep's Quadracci Powerhouse where An Iliad opened this past weekend, and in 60 years of The Rep's illustrious legacy, almost 35 which has been seen by this ticket holder every season, this stunning production ranks of as one of the top ten.
From the first moments an audience enters the theater, Scenic Designer Andrew Boyce reveals this play will be about destruction. Jagged holes in the stage floor, desecrated brick facades, scratched vintage lamps, old metal scaffolding on wheels and a gigantic pile of carefully placed debris in one corner create an uncomfortable ambiance to consider. A set resembling what happens after someone explodes a small grenade on stage.
When DeVita walks through a door that slams, closed and locked, the audience also realizes DeVita's confinement to the stage will be an initiation into an hour and forty- five minutes, no intermission intense evening of storytelling. Poetry truly put into motion, placing Homer's epic story of the Trojan War on both grand and humble display. Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare wrote An Iliad by intermingling actual Greek text along with Robert Fagle's superb English translation combined with modern conversation that unfolds under acclaimed John Langs's direction.
Then when the muse, cellist Alicia Storin, appears from "the heavens," behind a scrim background on a high platform dressed in a Grecian gown to help the poet recall the story, Composer/Sound Designer Josh Schmidt's sophisticated and sparse score assists DeVita in retelling the guts and glory of war. In a single, incomparable evening, acting, costumes, directing, lighting, set and music channel centuries into recalling the poetry of the human condition.
DeVita will climb the debris mountain searching as a soldier of Troy to see the Grecian ships waiting for the city's invasion. He battles with scaffolding, beating the steel with his biceps tensed portraying a warrior unleashed with rage. Scooping Achilles's newly welded armor from glowing holes in the stage floor, DeVita places the various pieces on the scaffolding's end pole to create a human like sculpture. Or he stutters in other moments, struggling to remember these tragedies in battle and the burning of bodies, when he converses with the audience as if sitting on a familiar bar stool.
Marvel when this poet, his muse and the demolished, jarring set converge in this production to depict the characters in Homer's Iliad as individuals the audience might meet next door, servicemen and warriors from any American city. Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Helen of Troy, Andromache, Astyanax, Paris, Priam come to life on stage seen as everyman or woman---people who become involved in the war zones, on the line or waiting on the shores, that only wish to be back home and live peaceful lives. The Poet rails there will be infinite destruction for humanity and the world.
Perhaps these elements elevate An Iliad into more than contemporary theater. The story returns the audience to the origins of literature and moves them into the future because as The Poet relates, he must tell these stories until they need be told no more. Modern life continues with the countless stories rife with the smell from burning cities and statistics enumerating the climbing human death tolls. DeVita also returns to the origins of storytelling by communicating in this contemporary context, underscored by Storin's sweet strings that whisper the sounds of earth's seas and winds, a man's anguish or a baby's cry, to invite the visceral details into the story.
The eerie, emotional evening warps the beginning ot time through the script until an unknown end, revealing the epic and personal, the ancient and apocalyptic, the glorious and gut-wrenching, the incidental and the profound, to create the juxtaposition of humanity's history exposed on stage to haunt the audience's memory. When all these contrasting qualities collide for one performance in beauty and horror, each theme resonates with a heightened magnificence.
After the performance, the audience might be called to do what The Poet, in this extraordinary, one-man, must-see performance by DeVita, says Hector asked the women of Troy to do: Pray. Pray for their brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, those in the past and yet unborn. Pray for those who become entrenched in the crossfire, also often daughters, mothers, sisters and children, because the Poet pleads, "Don't cry. Pray." The Rep's priceless, almost perfect production pleads to have all those who watch contemplate when wars on earth will end. Because as The Poet himself wails, "The ground screamed... and the whole earth is red with blood."
The Milwaukee Rep presents An Iliad featuring James DeVita at the Ouadracci Powerhouse in the Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex through March 23. For further information, performance dates and times, or tickets, call 414.224.9490 or www.MilwaukeeRep.com.