BWW Reviews: AN ILIAD Deconstructs War, Mythology at the Pittsburgh Public Theater
With these two simple words, Teagle F. Bougere, as the Poet (a vaguely Homeric storyteller figure), closes the epic tale of the Trojan War, leaving us to ponder what it is that we have seen, and heard, in Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson's electrifying one man show, An Iliad. Bougere's narration, performance and physicality have shown us two sides of the legendary saga: the superhuman and the human, the divine and the downtrodden, the dazzling feats of war and the tragic human consequences of violence and bloodshed, past and present.
The plot of An Iliad is high-concept but simple in its presentation and execution. A transient, immortal figure, The Poet has been singing the stories of world history for milennia, from culture to culture and era to era. But there is one story he wishes he no longer had to tell- the story of Hector and Achilles, and their clash at the center of the Trojan War. As he tells the tale, the line between the Poet and the figures he embodies begins to blur, as does the line between past and present. Ancient and modern language, influences and allusions blend together until the audience is led to imagine the Trojan War happening, not in ancient Greece and the Middle East, but in America, fought by soldiers from hometowns we know ourselves, soldiers who may have been our friends and neighbors.
As the Poet, Bougere is a revelation, blending an immortal lifetime's worth of tragedy and comedy into his portrayal of a world-weary storyteller. He changes his voice, mannerisms and physicality to portray dozens of characters, without ever ceasing to be the Poet. Even as a simple narrator figure, he nimbly traverses the positions of storyteller, priest, professor, clown, protester and mourner. In one memorable sequence, Bougere makes an analogy between an endless war and an endless line at the supermarket, and without ever seeming to change, transitions into an uncanny channeling of 1980's era Eddie Murphy stand-up comedy. The audience is roaring with laughter, the entire energy has changed- then Bougere snaps us back to the war, and we understand.
Bougere may be an American actor, but his portrayal of the immortal, world-weary, tragicomic Poet reminded me deeply of another nameless eternal figure: BBC's Doctor Who, known to his companions merely as "The Doctor." The slightly otherworldly element these two characters share was strengthened by the scenic and costume designs of Marion Williams. When the Poet enters to the sounds of vaguely science-fiction war, through a door bursting with bright white light, it is hard for a sci-fi connoiseur (okay, a nerd) to not think of The Doctor emerging from the door of his time-and-space-traversing TARDIS spacecraft. Bougere's costume also blends the modern with the ancient, giving the Poet an old-fashioned tunic shirt, a slightly retro overcoat, and a modern pair of pants.
By the end of the one-act performance, which runs about a hundred minutes, the Poet has ended the story of the Iliad, but he implies that the story never really ends, listing a seemingly-endless series of wars stretching up to the present day. To him, they are all the same. Perhaps the brilliance of O'Hare and Peterson's script is that it shows us both sides of war at once, with neither one contradicting the other. Any battle can be glorious, heroic, epic; but any battle (maybe every battle) is a phenomenal human tragedy as well. With these points in mind, the Poet's final words make all the sense in the world.