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November 22, 2011

A single Iliad launches a thousand stories

The audience members were still chattering among themselves when Homer nonchalantly stomped on stage. He broke into a stream of Greek, and when we all sat dumbfounded, casually began a speech in comprehensible, everyday English, gently poking fun at the long tradition of reciting the 24-book epic. Finally, the lights came on for Court Theatre’s production of An Iliad.

Timothy Edward Kane, an actor with numerous shows in Court Theatre behind him and with a history of collaboration with Artistic Director Charles Newell, magnificently builds the character of the tired bard in this one-man show. Dressed in tattered, neutral-colored clothing and carrying a canteen, Kane looks like a dusty and well-tread traveler. He opens the play with a seemingly flippant, nonchalant attitude, easily talking to the crowd about his past recitations of the epic. However, as he lapses into a new, abridged retelling of the story of Achilles’s rage, cracks appear in his affectedly nonchalant speech—and it is soon apparent that Homer is truly distressed, and that the Trojan War probably has something to do with it.

Kane gives each and every character a distinct voice and personality, utilizing different body motions and gestures, to humanize Achilles, Patroclus, Hector; and the rest of the cast. Although sometimes, in the transition between characters’ speeches, it can be unclear who exactly is doing the talking, Kane nevertheless executes excellent portrayals of the characters in the Iliad.

The utilization of light in this production is imperative and fascinating to that end. When Hector speaks to Andromache on the ramparts of Troy, all the lights are off except a single, lonely white light at the corner of the stage where Kane perches, alternately playing as Hector, as Andromache, and as Hector’s infant son. Reverting to the role of Homer, he presses on with the story—describing Achilles, describing Patroclus, and Patroclus’s charge against the Trojans to turn the tide of the war, with gut-wrenching vividness.

Perhaps the gut-wrenching vividness is the point. As Kane humanizes the heroes in the ancient epic, bringing home their families, their desires, their fears, their motivations, it becomes more and more difficult to watch the characters die. The entire production plays down the role of the gods that is so central to the original epic. In its careful selection of which parts of the epic to include and which to cut out, there is a very obvious anti-war flavor that might be off-putting to some. There was nothing subtle in Kane’s miming of producing a photograph and pointing at imaginary figures, saying boys’ names, saying that one boy was going to go to Oxford and was dead now. There is nothing subtle about the Lord of the Flies-esque speech Homer delivers in which he says that even the noblest of men become savage in victory while we hear cries of battle in the background. There is nothing subtle about Kane reciting a lengthy list of historical wars. The recitation is reserved at first, then turns into a fevered and agonized chant.

As the play goes on, Kane’s characters, and Homer himself, become more emotional and deranged; at Patroclus’s death, all the lights in the theater go out. In the pitch-black setting, Achilles lights a match and holds it trembling to his face. He is shocked, pained, trembling, and whimpering; the light from the flare gives his dim eyes haunting shadows. The hidden depths of the deceptively simple stage are revealed: a pool of water, where Homer splashes his face; a jet of sand which Homer uses to illustrate his monologue; a menacing gas mask which makes Homer’s voice echo eerily.

As his speech and the story progress, Kane removes more and more layers of clothing to show his vulnerability. Off comes the tattered overcoat; off comes the inner jacket; off comes the scarf. As each layer is discarded, Kane portrays Homer as becoming increasingly agitated and invested in the tragedy of his sorrow. Throughout the entire play, Kane intermittently stops his recital to ask, “Do you see?” And Kane’s performance is spot-on. The life he infuses into each beat, each character’s voice, each imaginary spear thrust paints the Trojan War far more darkly in this post-9/11 world. The message is clear, and the horrors of war are apparent.

As the play closes, with Hector dead, Patroclus gone, and Achilles having performed at last an act of compassion, Homer once again looks at the audience and says, quite simply, “You see?” Do we see what? The violence of war, the distinct histories, experiences, and words that flavor every individual. The significance of every single death, the bestial brutality that even the best man has within. When the play is done and the lights finally come on, I suppose we all do see.

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