Denis O'Hare
(© Tristan Fuge)
Denis O'Hare
(© Tristan Fuge)
It's been a while since Denis O'Hare took to the stage, although he's been keeping his acting profile high on television, with roles in HBO's True Blood as Russell Edgington, the vampire king of Mississippi, on FX's American Horror Story as the hideously burned Larry, and CBS' The Good Wife as the quirky Judge Abernathy.

Now, the Tony Award-winning star is returning to the theater in An Iliad, a one-man show at the New York Theatre Workshop that he co-wrote with director Lisa Peterson.

The project, which has been gestating since 2005, puts O'Hare in the lead role of "the Poet," but not all audiences will witness him in action, since he is alternating the role with another Tony winner, Stephen Spinella. It's an unusual arrangement, but Spinella received excellent notices when he performed the piece at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2010. "We just felt sort of disrespectful to bring it to New York and cast him off," says O'Hare.

As O'Hare points out, the work is not a strict retelling of Homer's massive epic about the Trojan War dating roughly from 800 B.C. "This is an alternate universe," he explains. "We decided to call our guy 'the Poet' instead of Homer, in keeping with that alternate universe. For me, there's no question it's Homer, but I think in Stephen's mind, it's not Homer. So Lisa has decided to leave the door open as wide as possible." The result is that, although the text is 99 percent identical, according to O'Hare, the actors are actually appearing in different productions, with different staging and music.

Nonetheless, making the Poet a consistent character has "bedeviled" both him and Spinella. "The stories don't necessarily have a cohesive connection," says O'Hare. "They're beloved stories that got thrown together in one book." So he and Peterson decided that the Poet is a trove of all the tales about the Trojan War and is compelled to recount them. As he does, he's editing them on the fly, reading his audience's receptivity like an old vaudevillian.

While the stories of Hector, Achilles and the 10-year siege of Troy are chockablock with violence, the authors have tried to avoid an anti-war slant. "When we came at it, we thought, 'Oh, yes, this is clearly anti-war,'" admits O'Hare. "But the more we mucked around, the more we realized that there is nothing clear about it. There is no definitive moral. There is no easy, reducible point."

An Iliad is not the actor's first effort as a writer. He was a poetry major at Northwestern before switching to theater. "But I realized that poetry was useless, and somehow I thought that theater was less useless," he says. In addition, he has written what he terms "a couple of really bad plays, and one actually pretty interesting play. And I've written three screenplays, one of which is very good, which I'm hoping to get done."

Next season, O'Hare will finally return to True Blood as Russell, who spent last season immured in concrete. "I never thought of myself as a horror genre guy, but the thing that's really satisfying is that the characters and the themes are so much bigger than the quotidian," he says.

"In something like True Blood, the range of expression goes from fundamental earth-shaking grief at the death of your 700-year-old lover to the outrage of an ancient spirit confronting the devastation wrought up on his beloved earth."

So does An Iliad require makeup on the order of a 2,900-year-old vampire or a grotesquely burned human? "None!" yelps O'Hare. "Stephen and I have both given in to facial hair because it seems like the easiest thing to do. But no makeup -- whew! Just an hour and forty minutes of intense speaking, yelling and singing."