Denis O’Hare gives  a magnificent performance as “The Poet”, a bard transported through time from ancient Greece to today, picking up our style and our way of speaking to tell us the story ofThe Iliad  A smallish man on a near-bare stage with pipes and a sink near the back wall, he’s travel worn, time worn, his only baggage a knocked-about canvas suitcase — that and his memory. 

At first O’Hare speaks in a searching, self-effacing, almost ordinary way – oh oh, what’s he going to do with Homer? — until he catches fire, and holds the audience rapt.  Superb lighting design punctuates emotion as O’Hare takes on the characters — now he’s Achilles enraged at Agamemnon’s insult, now Hector chucking his baby’s chin before going off to die, now Andromache grieving for Hector and herself.  What a tour de force of swift shifting characters and volatile emotions!

And sometimes he’s just himself, that ordinary seeming man, but a true professional: driven to take on his gift of telling, struggling to understand the significance of the gore and mayhem he’s describing and — since he’s made that trip through time and has a bard’s outstanding memory — of all wars. 

His shadow may loom large, to suggest, for example, the power of Achilles.  But he’s rather slight.  And crowded as the stage seems to become with the vivid characters of all sizes, shapes and ages he brings to life, he remains alone, an everyman, burdened with responsibility, compelled to grapple with meaning.  Epic and personal, history and one man making it through come together in a great performance.

The language moves from colloquial to epic (in Fagles’ translation).  So sometimes he’s not speaking Homer’s words at all but that doesn’t make it any less an Iliad.  The story of the Greeks at Troy was first sung by generations of bards in their own ways until, when writing came to Greece, The Iliad was written down and codified.  That’s why this is called An Iliad -– there were others.  And this Iliad, while moving from personal musing to epic description, captures the essential truths of the characters’ personalities and conflicts in the epic attributed to that elusive poet, Homer.  This is a telling that Homer would applaud, if he knew about us (unless, as a fellow-bard, his competitive sense got the better of him).

The ancient bards and rhapsodes sang with lyres or cytharas.  Here the bass provides the musical and emotional resonance:  the original music by Mark Bennett, played by Bassist Brian Ellingsen, is so beautiful it warrants its own soundtrack.

Program notes describe the long and careful development that brought An Iliad into being.  Like the outstanding These Seven Sicknesses  currently playing at The Flea Theater, the creators have found in the ancient Trojan War a way to engage with our long war in Iraq.  The creative team includes Scenic design by Rachel Hauck, Costume design by Marina Draghici, Lighting design by Scott Zielinsky and Donald Friend is Production Stage Manager.

Denis O’Hare and Stephen Spinella are taking on the role of The Poet in different performances.  This is so good, I want to see it again, and see Spinella.

An Iliad plays at New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan’s East Village through March 25, 2012  Extended through April 1.  For information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

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