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Theater Review: Ancient Homer hits home in 'An Iliad'

“Rage, goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.”

I admit that when I first entered the Mitchell Auditorium at the College of St. Scholastica on Sunday night for “An Iliad,” I was wondering how many of the audience members had learned to correctly pronounce the name of Achilles in the last 48-hours because of a recent tragic event on “The Wheel of Fortune” that has gone viral.

This riveting one-man show began in the dark, with Daniel J. Tobin actually reciting the opening lines of the epic poem in Homeric Greek, pronouncing the verses according to the Hellenistic pronunciation of the Hellenic Koine dialect. Later, there is a memorable moment in which the grieving Hecuba’s lamentation is uttered in Greek, the raw emotion coming across even without her words being translated.

Written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, “An Iliad” is nine parts ancient Homer and one part modern parallels, combining classic Greek epithets with the occasional profanity of more modern vintage. The contemporary elements are well integrated into the performance overall (although I found the ornithological digression during the fateful fight between Achilles and Hector to be ill-timed).

The main character might be a demigod, but the troops in the trenches clearly represent the universal soldier. Tobin begins listing them as coming from Plataea and other parts of ancient Greece but then transforms them into teenagers from Ohio and other states who are never going to make it to college. “I knew these boys,” Tobin tell us.

After nine years of war, life goes on back home for the tens of thousands of Achaean soldiers. When Tobin explains, “They want to go home. They’ve forgotten why they’re fighting,” the parallels to the present plight of U.S. troops fighting abroad are patently obvious.

Tobin is quite selective in his physical manifestations of the various characters, so those small moments stand out: He give Hector a wide stance standing over the body of Patroclus and then has him utter his dying curse while kneeling; he sits as the crippled god of fire and takes Andromache’s slow walk to the battlement to see her worst fear confirmed.

The climax of Homer’s epic is not the mano-a-mano confrontation between Achilles and Hector but rather the supplication of a father as he begs for the killer to return the body. Interestingly, O’Hare and Peterson choose to make the pivot point not Priam kissing the hands of the man who slayed his son, but Achilles giving up his rage.

Surprisingly, the dramatic high point of the evening is given to one of the minor figures, Patroclus, who dons Achilles’ armor and revels in battle and Tobin ends atop a table in an ecstatic apotheosis of bloody fury. When Achilles snarls at the dying Hector that he will “eat you raw,” the moment pales in comparison.

There are several parts of the play that are set to what I assume is original music by the Canadian cellist and composer Zoë Keating, the best of which was the first piece, which marvelously matched the telling of the plague Apollo visited upon the Achaean host.

“An Iliad” focuses on the rage of Achilles and includes only those parts of the narrative that directly impact the character. Once his arrogance creates the precipitating events that enrage Achilles, Agamemnon becomes a forgotten figure and the rest of the Greek captains get mentioned here and there without actually taking the stage.

Only at the end of the evening does Tobin go beyond the scope of “The Iliad,” to briefly touch upon the Trojan Horse and the Sack of Troy, the fate of the Trojan women and the epics of Aeneas and Odysseus to come. The line extends from Troy, Alexandria and Constantinople to Dresden, Hiroshima, Sarajevo and Kabul, before Tobin returns to Homer’s original ending and the funeral of Hector, breaker of horses.

Any work that reflects the brutal reality of war ultimately functions as antiwar rhetoric. At one point, Tobin recites a lengthy litany of wars, pausing briefly after listing each of the two world wars, and ending with Syria and a long silence denoting the absence of a final period to end that particular sentence.

Lawrance Bernabo has taught both works but is an Iliad person rather than an Odyssey person. He also goes with the Beatles over Elvis and Mary Ann over Ginger.