Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 43
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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World’s Oldest War Story Plays Out in “An Iliad” at McCarter; Solo Show with Contemporary Twist

—Donald Gilpin

The audience at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre last Saturday night rose to its feet, gradually, first one at a time then en masse, to applaud Stephen Spinella’s 100-minute solo performance of An Iliad, adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare.

The powerful impact of the experience was apparent, but for whom was that applause intended? And who is most deserving of acclaim for delivering to the listeners in the audience the meaning of that epic war story?

Do the plaudits most fittingly go to the mighty heroes who fought the war in the thirteenth century B.C.? To the Greek warrior Achilles, to his mighty Trojan adversary Hector, whose burial ceremony ends the play, to the aged King Priam who mourns the death of his son and the waste of so many lives?

Or is it Homer we clap for, that traveling bard who is credited with writing both the Iliad and the Odyssey? Or for Robert Fagles, distinguished Princeton professor and translator of Homer, or for Ms. Peterson and Mr. O’Hare, who adapted this stage version, paring down from about 25,000 lines and adding direct allusions to contemporary wars and wars throughout the ages?

Or do we direct our applause primarily to Mr. Spinella, veteran New York actor and two-time Tony Award winner (as Prior Walter in Angels in America, both parts) for his tour de force rendition of the poet, the storyteller, a host of different warriors and others populating the plains of Ilium in this production?

Or does our applause simply manifest our grateful recognition that we have been called to witness and acknowledge the monumental heroism, horror and waste of war—and to express our mutual sorrow and regret that such is the lot of mankind?

An Iliad, adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, will run through November 7 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre at 91 University Place in Princeton. Performances are at 7:30 pm Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 pm on Fridays, 3 and 8 pm Saturdays and 2 and 7:30 pm on Sundays. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit for tickets and further information.

Being the collaborative art form that it is, the experience is made up of many parts, but those parts cannot always be clearly viewed in separation from each other. Homer and Mr. Fagles and Ms. Peterson, who also directed, and Mr. O’Hare and Mr. Spinella and accompanying double bassist Bruce Ellingsen and the McCarter production team must all share credit for delivering this memorable experience, though the evening is not without its problems.

An Iliad remains mostly faithful to Homer’s story, as it focuses on the core of the action, the confrontation of Achilles and Hector. The script, varied in tone, also connects this world of 1250 B.C. and this ancient Trojan War to wars of today and other wars over the intervening 3000 years.

Mr. Spinella, in the role of “the poet,” the storyteller, relates this epic tale and plays all of the roles. “There is something ancient about him,” as the stage directions describe, when he makes his first entrance onto the huge, empty stage. Middle-aged, lean, unshaven, weary, with bare feet, a trench coat, grey scarf around his neck, small suitcase in hand, he squints out at the audience and intones in Greek the opening lines of the Iliad. Is this Homer himself, still wandering the world after thousands of years, telling his timeless painful tale, finding his way here onto the bare McCarter stage to once again recreate for his listeners the wondrous events of the Trojan War?

Mr. Spinella deftly shifts back and forth from occasional dramatic lines in ancient Greek to the majestic poetry of Fagles’ translation, to frequent contemporary exchanges with his audience in which the “poet” lends his own down-to-earth observations to the proceedings.

Mr. Spinella takes on the multiple characterizations, the considerable physical and vocal requirements and the vast memorization demands with energy and authority. He shares with the audience his struggles to remember the details and to make us realize the connections to our lives and our wars. “The point is, on all these ships, are boys from every small town in Ohio, from farmlands, from fishing villages…” He brings it down to our contemporary level, he confides in us in order to help us see and understand.

The war has been going on for nine years. No end to the Greek siege of Troy is in sight. The cause, revenge for the abduction of Helen, seems to have lost its meaning and importance, but the Greeks are unwilling to return home empty handed after nine years and so many lives lost. The balance swings back and forth between Greeks and Trojans.

The strongest scenes are the key moments of the story of Hector and Achilles: the clash between Achilles and the power-obsessed Agamemnon, general of the Greek armies, who insists on taking Achilles’ beautiful concubine and thus sets off the rage of Achilles, who refuses ever again to fight for Agamemnon; the death of Achilles’ beloved friend Patroclus, who has put on Achilles’ armor and led the Greek troops, only to be mercilessly slaughtered by Hector; Achilles’ vengeful slaughter of Hector, then dragging the body behind his chariot around the walls of the city; and the moving appeal of the venerable King Priam, begging Achilles to relinquish the body of Priam’s noble son.

There is much powerful drama in the Iliad, and, in the tradition of Homer the traveling bard, there are significant advantages to seeing and hearing this text performed live. With its numerous characters and events, it does require close, concentrated listening for the full 100 minutes. Knowledge of mythology and the highlights of the Trojan War, better yet the Iliad itself, are also helpful.

Mr. Spinella is credible and engaging, often captivating, in bringing these characters and scenes to life. But, despite his remarkable tour de force performance and dynamic assistance from Mr. Ellingsen’s extraordinarily expressive and versatile double bass in setting the mood and bringing these people and places to life, it would be helpful for the audience’s overworked visual imaginations to see some other actors to embody these heroic figures and to show the live human interactions between them. The huge, empty stage at McCarter is also problematic for a single performer, no matter how vast the story he is telling. The “poet” here, bottle and glass in hand, mentions telling his tale in taverns and bars, and a smaller performance space, with listeners in closer proximity to the storyteller, would serve this production well.

“Only the dead have seen the end of war,” wrote philosopher George Santayana, and this Iliad, with all its passions, its heroism, its excesses of violence, its human desires and human failings, serves as a powerful reminder of the great waste and sorrow of the Trojan War, and of all wars since then, and of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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