With its opening words — “Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage” — Homer’s epic poem The Iliad sets the stage for one of literature’s most harrowing depictions of why we go to war. Supernatural causes notwithstanding, The Trojan War — that bloodiest of classical confrontations — is fueled by the pettiness of revenge, lust, and personal vanity. But in the Aquila Theatre’s Iliad: Book One, now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, the stage is soaked not in blood or in tears, but with a sodden self-seriousness that treats the material with both too much respect and too little.
Long before we hear that famed opening incantation, we sit through an extended sequence of slow-motion soldiering that is the equivalent of shouting at the audience “What you are about to watch is an epic.” And throughout the evening, director Peter Meineck continues to make small, risk-adverse choices that seem neither motivated by the source material nor compelling in their own right, such as a barren, proscenium-less stage lit in stark whites, blues, and pinks.
Setting the play during World War II — a decision inspired by the cover of Stanley Lombardo’s translation — doesn’t fly either. Homer’s tale of heroes battling over slights and slave girls simply doesn’t graft well, and Meineck hasn’t forcefully created connections for us.
The action alternates stilted narration with declaratory shouting and betrays its seriousness only late in the game with some uneasy comedy. (Of his nagging wife, Zeus says, “You’re going to force me into conflict with Hera — I can just heara now.”) Only the sequence that sets Zeus on his Olympian throne suggests the visual and dramatic tension that this 75-minute evening needs so as not to feel a great deal longer.
Although, the ensemble cast — John Buxton, Nathan Flower, Jeffrey Golde, Jay Painter, Natasha Piletich, and Vaishnavi Sharma — speak well, they never fully engage. Even when playing major roles like Achilles or Agamemmnon, there’s a vacant ring to their lines. While we often get the feeling we’re watching something of import, one wishes the production earned that significance and not just declared it.