It was a low bar to reach for sure, but with its current production of “An Iliad”, the Long Wharf Theatre has finally managed to produce its best show this season. After what has been an underwhelming 2019-20 season, this provocative play with a spellbinding, nearly solo performance at its core, “An Iliad”, while far from perfect, seems heaven-sent right now in New Haven.
Based on Homer’s epic poem and adapted by the playwright Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare with a translation by Robert Fagles, “An Iliad” covers familiar ground in the story of Helen of Troy and the battle to win her freedom. Our narrator is “The Poet” (a magnetic Rachel Christopher) who is tasked to tell her story of war and its consequences until it no longer becomes necessary. Miss Christopher, clad in a long leather coat and pulling a rolling piece of luggage, draws the viewer immediately into her captivating version of unique story theatre. The play was originally performed by Denis O’Hare who was followed by Stephen Spinella and one can only imagine the power those fine actors brought to this particular story. But placing a woman at its center brings, I would argue, an even greater sense of urgency and humanity to the piece.
Certainly that is the case with Miss Christopher who is mesmerizing throughout, weaving the story with intensity and passion climaxing at a remarkable sequence in which she methodically and with rising horror lists every war that has occurred in the history of the world. It’s breathtaking and unforgettable. It also might have been a good place to end. Through no fault of Christopher, “An Iliad” does tend to meander and repeat itself the longer it runs (about 90 minutes with no intermission). I also quibble with Whitney White’s straight-forward but rather lackluster direction. There is little theatricality in the staging and it isn’t helped by Daniel Soule’s grim and unattractive set design.
Christopher is never the problem here and she is given essential support by Zoenko Martin as her “Muse” who offers musical interludes and sound effects via electric guitar and keyboard. To this end, Lee Kinney’s sound design and White and Martin’s music also help energize the talky nature of the work. All told, however, “An Iliad” is first and foremost a vehicle for the extraordinary talents of Rachel Christopher, a poet for all seasons.
“An Iliad” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through April 14. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.