Denis O'Hare in An Iliad
(© Joan Marcus)
Denis O'Hare in An Iliad
(© Joan Marcus)
Warfare in all of its bloody, rage-filled squalor springs vividly to life in Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson's An Iliad, an adaptation for solo performer of Homer's 24-book poem about the Trojan War, now playing at New York Theatre Workshop.

Directed by Petersen, and performed on alternating nights by O'Hare and Stephen Spinella, the show is a sweeping, visceral theatrical event that not only commands attention from start to finish, but can prove to be a touching ode to the tradition of storytelling and an excursion into the magic of simple stagecraft.

Indeed, from its first moments -- when metallic crashes resound through and shake the theater (Mark Bennett provides the stirring soundscape and haunting original music played by bassist Brian Ellingsen) -- the show unflinchingly and authoritatively announces itself. And once the lone figure of "The Poet" appears on the stage chanting in Greek, theatergoers are hard pressed to not give themselves over to the piece.

O'Hare and Peterson's script does not attempt to distill the entirety of the epic work into its taut 100-minute running time. Instead, they focus on two of the great warriors from both sides of the field: the Greek Achilles and the Trojan Hector. By centering on these two characters' stories, and the events that lead to their ultimate meeting on the field of battle, the writers make the story -- which still includes appearances by gods such as Athena and Apollo -- remarkably intimate.

The sense of the show's immediacy is only enhanced by the writers' shrewd embellishments with contemporary references. For instance, when The Poet -- who in Sisyphean fashion has been reciting his song for centuries -- realizes that rattling off the names of the Greek towns from which the ordinary soldiers have come will have no meaning today, he asks audiences to imagine that "on all these ships, are boys from every small town in Ohio, from farmlands, from fishing villages…the boys of Nebraska and South Dakota …the twangy boys of Memphis..."

Similarly, after Achilles has bested Hector, and The Poet begins to describe the Greek warrior's revenge amid the slaughter on the field, he launches into a sad and painful reverie that contains the names of wars and skirmishes from the beginning of time to the present. This moment is grippingly underscored by one of the many painterly transitions in Scott Zielinski's sumptuous lighting design.

Remarkably, Peterson has directed two distinct productions for the two actors who undertake the Herculean task of bringing the challenging work to the stage, giving theatergoers who opt to see both O'Hare and Spinella perform the chance to encounter the script from two unique, and both inherently satisfying perspectives.

O'Hare, wearing a heavy wool military coat under which he sports both a blue blazer and a loose-knit sweater, pockmarked with snagged holes (costumes are by Marina Draghici), makes The Poet a man of intense passion. He is both utterly disgusted by not only the task of having to relate the horrors of the events at Troy, but also by the details of warfare itself.

There's something antic to his performance from the outset that unsettles, and when the passions of the piece reach a boiling point -- the arrival of the figure of Strife in the world -- O'Hare seems to have channeled some sort of demon and brought it to the stage.

Stephen Spinella in An Iliad
(© Joan Marcus)
Stephen Spinella in An Iliad
(© Joan Marcus)
Conversely, Spinella, barefoot and sporting a vest, rumpled white shirt and khakis, makes The Poet not a man of the field, but almost an aging vaudevillian, someone who's come to the stage to concurrently entertain and educate.

There's a softness to his work that amplifies The Poet's mordant humor about the events at Troy and a quietness to his certain sections (a description of Troy before the war) that makes some of the moments -- particularly the bloodlust that Patroclus feels once he has taken the field wearing Achilles' armor -- even more galvanizing.

Each of the actors smoothly transitions into the secondary characters in their own way. For instance, O'Hare makes Paris an almost masculine valley girl while Spinella imbues the character with a sort of Wildean hauteur. And, it's a tribute to Peterson's careful work that she has fostered such individualized performances.

The script concludes on almost a hopeful note -- when a temporary ceasefire has been reached so that the Trojans can give Hector a proper burial. The Poet references the carnage that will follow during the sack of Troy but says "I'm not singing that song..."

The truest testament to the power of the show is that theatergoers very well may find themselves wishing he would.