BWW Reviews: Great Storytelling At the Center of One-Man AN ILIAD at The Wilbury Group
When it comes to plays with a single actor, there are generally two types. The first is the "Look at me!" category, where the actor basically spends ninety minutes shouting "Look at how funny and talented and awesome I am!" The second category is the type of show where the story takes center stage and the actor is simply the conduit through which that story is told, often with stunning results. The Wilbury Group's well-executed production of An Iliad is a perfect example of that second, far superior, kind of one-man show.
Adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare from Robert Fagles' translation of Homer's epic poem, An Iliad puts one man, simply called The Poet, on stage, alone, to tell the story he has seemingly told for centuries. The Poet relates the tale of the Trojan War, the Greeks, like Achilles and Agamemnon, the Trojans, such as Hector and Paris, and how they lived, fought and died. He tells the story in the context of our modern times and modern wars, and while he doesn't offer any answers, he forces us to consider war's seemingly endless presence in our lives as well as its potential futility.
As directed by Clara Weishahn, this production is striking its familiarity and accessibility. That is to say, it doesn't feel like some stodgy old character telling a tired, boring old tale that doesn't mean anything to our world today. It's the exact opposite of that. It feels like our buddy or neighbor or teacher telling us a story about a tragic war that is happening right now. It's instantly relatable and immediate.
At the same time, there's an undeniable energy to the production, a sense of fun and entertainment, juxtaposed with the serious messages and tragic drama within the story. It's as if your favorite college history professor decided to act out Homer's Iliad, playing every character and performing every scene with abandon. Actually, it's even better than that, it's more like he took the entire class out to the pub, bought everyone a round, then started performing the story.
Playing that sort-of-professorial character, The Poet, is Matthew Fraza, a local actor, musician and director who is making his debut at The Wilbury in this show. Fraza brings a non-stop energy to his performance and holds the audience's attention for the show's entire length. Nothing about his performance ever seems self-indulgent. His focus is on telling the story, and he does it brilliantly, including giving all the characters in his story unique voices and mannerisms, making the proceedings even more enjoyable to watch.
Fraza is not completely alone on stage, he's joined by Muse, played by Evan Lunt. Lunt doesn't actually do any speaking. He sits above the stage on scaffolding, playing the cello underneath much of story. Most of the time, the music is a fine dramatic accompaniment. There were a few times, though, when it was too loud and drowned out the voice of the story teller, who at the time was speaking softly.
There were also a few props and set dressings, which Fraza employed during the telling of the story. They seemed superfluous most of the time, especially in the case of the long pieces of fabric draped above and across the stage. While there were one or two cute moments when he used them as a sort of costume, the fabric mostly gave Fraza the chance for some distracting and unnecessary stage business. In the case of props and set dressings, less would have been more.
There were also some moments of arguably unnecessary blocking upstage, sending Fraza quite far from his audience. This tended to take away from the power of the storytelling, which benefitted from the intimate, up-close-and-personal blocking for most of the play. When you've got an actor like Fraza telling a story as powerful as Homer's Iliad, you really don't need anything else. It is a riveting and powerful story, well told by a confident and charismatic actor who clearly puts his entire self into the performance. More than just a story well told, it is a one-man show that is well worth your time.
An Iliad runs January 23 thru February 8, 2014, with performances Thursday thru Sunday at 7:30pm. Sunday January 26 is Pay-What-You-Can. Tickets are $15-$20 and are available at (401) 400-7100 or online at
Pictured: Matthew Fraza. Photo by Brian Gagnon Photography