Review: Powerful ILIAD at Taffety Punk

By now the world is used to inhumane aberrations like ten-year wars. But back when Homer wrote his epic poem, it was still something to rage about, as he did about the siege of Troy by the Greeks in the Trojan War.

The ancient Greek war survives now mostly as a vague memory about a Trojan horse. But though that is addressed in "The Odyssey," that construction never figures in Homer's "The Iliad" or the vivid recreation of it with the slightly changed name, "An Iliad," at Taffety Punk Theatre Company.

You may think of its single cast member, Esther Williamson, who plays "The Poet," however, as something of a vessel in which she delivers this vivid tale, as reimagined by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare (who may be better known for his roles in "True Blood" and various sessions of "American Horror Story").

The Taffety production, directed by Dan Crane, begins more like performance art, with Williamson entering slowly the space in the center of the modest theater space at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, making sure to make eye contact with everyone there and then seeming to mark out her performance space with sand poured from a glass bottle. Immediately, her line, which ends in a spiral, is deliberately smudged, even as the dust is still settling in the air.

"Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time," she laments. And yet she begins the tale, told not as a song but as a barroom reverie, vividly setting she scene of hundreds of boats, with thousands of soldiers, as far as the eye can see, from the walls of Troy, as the epic battle between Achilles and Agamemnon is about to begin.

Such is the power of the words in the adaptation the authors made from the translation by Robert Fagles, and particularly Williamson's fiery performance, that is far more than the telling of the epic tale, but a full blown performance of it. When the thrumming bass or strains of electric guitar are heard from the backing musicians - Erin McCarley and Beck Levy of the band Hand Grenade Job - it starts to sound almost like the kind of howling performance poetry Patti Smith did before she became a full-on rocker.

That's where the punk ethos come into play that is so important to the unique 12-year-old theatre company - to able to conjure all these powerful ideas with simplicity, talent, guts and maybe a guitar.

For Williamson, it is truly a tour-de-force. A one-person play of this caliber is no small undertaking and she dives in fully with passion such that it never seems a historical presentation, but a mirror for our own warring times that leads to a remarkable moment late in the piece where she mentions every single major war in the world that has occurred since then. It both takes a long time and it places the events squarely at our feet, just as the sand is, with the mention of the word Aleppo.

Paul Callahan's subtle lighting changes are effective as was Crista Noel Smith's stark production design, which featured in part blackboard walls with passages of Greek half-erased, as well as the elemental bottles.

"An Iliad" ends not with pouring more sand from them, but with pouring water, into a bowl where the Poet can finally splash it on her face. The washing off is not so easy for those who have heard her tale.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: Esther Williamson in "An Iliad" at Taffety Punk Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

"An Iliad" runs through Oct. 22 at the Taffety Punk Theatre Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE. Tickets available online.


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Roger Catlin, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a Washington D.C.-based arts writer whose work appears regularly in and AARP the Magazine. He has a... (read more about this author)


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