In Scena Theatre's "Thersites," Carter Jahncke plays the harmonica, imitates Elvis and swears a lot. He dodges missiles and talks about bestiality. And near the monologue's end, he starts spinning with arms outstretched, crying out as he whirls.
Jahncke is "Thersites," the blind, foul-mouthed Greek soldier who in "The Iliad" criticizes Agamemnon and in turn gets beaten by Odysseus with Agamemnon's scepter. You likely won't grasp any of those details from Robert McNamara's new play, however.
And that seems to belie the point: "Thersites" is the first offering of a trilogy Scena calls "The Classics Made Easy," which purports to retell ancient epics from a different perspective and with a modern, streamlined sensibility. Still to come are "I, Cyclops," in which "The Odyssey" is told from the monster's point of view, and "Gladiator," in which a fighter ruminates about an upcoming battle. All three works will be presented in repertory at Warehouse Theater Second Stage until July 10.
The idea's an interesting one, but those with a firm grasp of Greek myth will get more out of this production than will neophytes. Far from being a fresh, simpler take on a complicated story, "Thersites" merely drops some key words -- Ulysses, Ithaca, Hector's horses -- in what amounts to an hour-long rant whose details are thick but whose narrative is never clear. Thersites' childhood (with someone called "Singer") is one topic; the rape of Helen is another (with a rag doll, hanging limp over a pedestal, used most misguidedly as a prop). Anachronistic double-entendres about Trojans and referring to Zeus as "the big Z" may be cute, but you're more likely to remember these groaners instead of the bigger picture McNamara is trying to establish.
One of the script's strengths is its rhythm -- poetic prose dominated by rhyme, alliteration and stream-of-consciousness lists of synonyms to punctuate a detail. And Jahncke, with unkempt hair, sunglasses and a ratty frock of camouflage green, delivers it all with an energy that's part preacher, part street tough. It's a performance that would be compelling if the story weren't so difficult to follow and ultimately lulling -- every time you hear one of the production's quite loud missiles get launched, you may feel as if a teacher is rapping on your desk for your attention.
Thersites never actually gives his name, referring to himself as "a humble narrator" who is "just trying to make sense of it all." For a while, audience members will likely listen closely and try to make sense of "Thersites," too. But by the time Jahncke starts spinning, you'll regard the last exploding missile not as a wake-up call but as an appropriate critique.
Thersites, by Robert McNamara. Directed by Gabriele Jakobi. Costume, Melanie Clark; sound, Gabriele Jakobi and David Crandall; lighting, Marianne Meadows; set, Michael C. Stepowany. Approximately one hour. Through July 10 at Warehouse Theater Second Stage, 1019 Seventh St. NW. Call 703-684-7990 or visit www.scenatheatre.org.