An afternoon rehearsal of “An Iliad” at Studio Theatre starts in the middle, too. Scott Parkinson is the only man on stage. With his frayed clothing and scruffy face, he’s looking a bit worse for wear—an appropriate appearance, given that his character, the Storyteller, has supposedly been traveling the world for thousands of years, retelling the fall of Troy to anyone who’ll listen.
“An Iliad,” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, based in part on Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s poem, is directed by Studio artistic director David Muse. It’s a mash-up of the past and the present, with the sole Storyteller speaking in a hybrid of Fagles’s more erudite language and modern, slang-filled sentences. He makes references, both lingering and fleeting, to the striking parallels between this ancient conflict in present-day Turkey and recent combat in Iraq and Afghanistan — from similarities in the location and duration of these clashes to the philosophical angst they inspire.
With “all the issues that are in the Iliad,it felt to me like it was the time for us to be thinking about that,” Peterson said. “Because especially [while writing the play], I was very much aware that we were, suddenly, really at war again.”
The set at Studio is bare save for a chair, table and a few other scattered props. You could call the production “minimalist,” if “minimalist epic” doesn’t strike you as too oxymoronic. Parkinson voices every character, accompanied by a single musician.
The Storyteller, perched on a ladder with his left foot resting on a low rung, reveals that Achilles is refusing to fight. Patroclus, his friend and comrade, floats the idea of fighting in his place. Give me your armor, Patroclus says, and no one will know it’s not you. Achilles is Superman, and Patroclus is more of a Jimmy Olsen, so the armor is much too big. But off Patroclus goes,the Storyteller says, “to the Greek ramparts.”
Off we go to the front lines, the Storyteller declares. And he seems to be saying: You know what that means. You’ve been there, too. You still are.
The story of the Iliad is more than 2,700 years old. The story of Peterson and O’Hare’sIliad starts in 2003, right around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Peterson was bingeing on war plays and ruminating on the possibilities of solo performance. The Iliad idea came from a friend of Peterson’s who teaches the first chapter of Homer’s epic in a theater class at Fordham University.