Think of all the wars you’ve ever heard of across the millennia, right through the current conflict in Syria. How long would it take you to name them? That banal task occupies roughly three minutes of stage time for the haggard Storyteller in the one-man “An Iliad” at the Studio Theatre, long enough that you may finally tire of this mopey play’s generic antiwar refrain.
Wars are all the same, or so this cotton-headed analysis claims. Vain men grow angry; next thing you know, Agamemnon or perhaps Achilles (doesn’t matter) is in a blind rage, with armies behind him.
Or maybe it’s one of us, here and now, in a sudden road rage. You could kill someone, right? So go the sloppy equations in this 100-minute adaptation of Homer’s epic by director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare, re-created at the Studio by company artistic director David Muse and performer Scott Parkinson.
If you’re in the mood for a classical bath, perhaps you’ll enjoy the lean, artful surfaces of Muse’s production. It’s reliably elegant and thoughtful from the moment Parkinson wanders into the theater from the street: The actor, his clothes frayed and his demeanor weary, looks as if he’s bringing news from a purgatorial front line. Parkinson is a vivid Storyteller, fully capable of holding your attention in the calculated emptiness of designer Luciana Stecconi’s stage, but for good measure he gets mournful musical accompaniment composed by Eric Shimelonis and played live on viola da gamba by Rebecca Landell.
What may get on your nerves quickly, though, is the characterization of the Storyteller by Peterson and O’Hare. This figure is casually chatty, an almost cool but far too eager high school civics teacher whose heart bleeds and bleeds for all the needless suffering on our cruel globe. The drama he tells focuses on the Homeric saga — Agamemnon’s pride, Patroclus’s folly, Achilles’ wrath, Hector’s nobility, etc. — but with direct contemporary appeals aimed at prodding you into thinking about our own soldiers from, as he so soberly puts it, Ohio, Nebraska, South Dakota.
Yet “An Iliad,” with its frank disinterest in the causes of given wars and its focus on pure rage — psychology, not politics — is far too vague to be a meaningful reply to current events, even though it sort of retains that impulse. Last spring O’Hare told the Daily Beast, “Lisa was looking for a way to reflect on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and she felt contemporary playwrights weren’t responding.” The dilemma recalls lines penned by the ancient Jersey troubadour called Springsteen: “The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all/ They just stand back and let it all be.”
Even given the heartening, explosive productions last fall of the strong new war-themed plays “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” at Round House Theatre and “Dying City” at Signature Theatre, “An Iliad” may make you impatient with an American drama that too frequently lobs mushy commentary from behind barricades of classical material. The blandly antiwar “An Iliad” is handsome. Its presentation is expert. And it’s perfectly harmless.
by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, based on Homer’s “Iliad,” translated by Robert Fagles. Directed by David Muse. Lights, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Laree Lentz. About 100 minutes. Through Jan. 13 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.