It wasn’t actually dubbed “the war to end all wars.” In fact, it turned out to be “the war that began all wars.” We’re talking the Trojan War, begun when the handsome Paris, a Trojan, abducted beautiful Helen, a Greek, the wife of Menelaus, who thereupon helped launch a thousand ships to get his wife back.
What we know of the conflict and its tragic aftermath is detailed in “The Iliad” by the poet Homer. Now at Long Wharf is the absorbing “An Iliad,” adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare from Robert Fagles’ translation. The play’s title suggests it is but one horror story in a long line of brutal, raging conflicts. This one happens to involve both humans and gods.
What of others, the play asks? What of heroes known and unknown? What of young men from Nebraska and Ohio fighting in Vietnam? What of wars small as well as large? The connections so permeate the evening that the Trojan War becomes not only real but metaphorical with Homer’s epic woven into the tapestry of today.
We begin with a lone woman, The Poet (the remarkable Rachel Christopher), toting baggage that adds to trunks already on stage, suggesting a journey. She appears before a silver curtain which soon parts to reveal an ugly stone wall, steps and a light-created stream of water. This is, supposedly, Troy. “Still I sang it,” she says and repeats, caught as she is in a Sisyphean re-telling of this tale of fury, pride and honor.
Here’s the brave Achilles, brutalized Hector, outmaneuvered Patroclus, diffident Paris, dictatorial Agamemnon and the wailing women of Troy. Our guide, the anguished Poet, assumes various guises, relating the tale with great clarity, ending with King Priam’s plea to be allowed to bury the mutilated body of his son Hector, the evening’s most moving scene.
Throughout, the action switches between the contemporary and the ancient, with some lines spoken in Greek. Rage, for example, is not saved for war; it can occur when one driver is cut off by another. We have the same untamed emotions as the Trojan and Greek soldiers, belying our thinking of ourselves as peaceful citizens. War, although filled with frenzy, is not the only excuse for anger.
If the play hits rather hard and obviously at “lessons” to be learned, so be it. Even calling it a “play” is going far since the conflict is told, not shown. A second character, The Muse (Zdenko Martin), adds back-and-forth, acting as a foil, strumming guitar and speaking a few lines.
Although written for a male actor, “An Iliad” works well, though differently, for a female. When this Poet dons Helen’s blouse, we’re thrust into the world of those who also watch and wait.
Director Whitney White injects variety of movement and a sense of implication that deepens the well-known events. Would that Daniel Soule’s too-literal set design had been as restrained. But Andy Jean’s costumes, Kate McGee’s lighting and Lee Kinney’s sound design add drama to a sadly familiar tale of death and destruction, so stunningly told by Rachel Christopher.