There are a few reasons that the man seated next to me may have dozed off midway through Wednesday night’s performance of “An Iliad” at the Berkeley Rep. For one, it was the dead middle of the work week. For another, the average American’s attention span is shrinking. And third, the play boasts but one cast member.
“An Iliad” is the contemporary retelling of Homer’s epic about the fall of Troy. Henry Woronicz is the play’s sole actor, performing the role of The Poet, a wandering incarnation of the Greek oratorical tradition. The singular focal point is gutsy — and tiring.
Director and co-adaptor Lisa Peterson came up with the idea to update “The Iliad” after the United States invasion of Iraq back in 2003. The coverage of the invasion reignited her interest in plays focused on war.
She became obsessed with the idea of “The Iliad” existing as a product of oral tradition, ultimately choosing to collaborate with co-adaptor Denis O’Hare, an artist sharing her interest in the politics of war. Recorded conversations of the two discussing the modern relevance of the play — based on a translation by Robert Fagles — served as the primary foundation for the script.
This modern bend gives lead actor Henry Woronicz a lot of material to play with. His monologues jump sharply from humorous ramblings to tearful yelps, mentioning places and times ranging from farm boys in Iowa to gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus.
While texture is normally something to be applauded, these layers proved overwhelming.
Woronicz opened the show at a bipolar pace, tossing around a surplus of emotions and moving so quickly between them as to give the audience a mean case of empathetic whiplash. The twitchy rhythm feels more akin to a Robin Williams movie than an epic poem. When the pace slows and Woronicz hits his stride, maintaining himself atop a progressively toned down orator’s vibrato, it feels like a deep cleansing breath.
This is not to say that Woronicz doesn’t have his moments as The Poet. The actor was generally at his best in the play’s calmer scenes, his voice getting raspier, his eyes sadder. The high-intensity moments are laudable in commitment, if not frenetic. If revealed with less frequency, these moments would have packed power, but as it was, they felt like an endless chain of yelled gory. And even gore, if screamed about enough, gets a little boring.
Sound effects are provided largely by live bassist Brian Ellingsen, The Poet’s “muse,” a kid dressed in jeans and a beanie who rides on and off stage on a bicycle. His music suits the stories, shaping the emotional contours of The Poet’s recitations. Additional booms and clangs unite beautifully with inventive lighting schemes to create interesting visuals on an otherwise bare, industrial stage.
The modern aspects of the show are perhaps the most powerful, standing in close relation to the epic’s original context. The connections between past wars and current, the legacy of bloodshed and pain, the untamable human impulse of rage are all intertwined in the complex web of The Poet’s oratory.
Though at times it goes at length to the point of feeling didactic, the general effect is jarring. It draws us back to the story, relating the audience to the lifeblood of the classical narrative in a way that no detailed fight scenes ever could.
That it is delivered by one man, a vessel of historical tumult and a vehicle for its memory, is profound. Peterson and O’Hare’s recorded conversations come to fruition in these moments, nuances that stand out among the chaos.