In an epic illustration of the old observation that “history repeats itself,” Homer’s “Iliad” will receive a vivid reimagining by Theatrical Outfit starting this week. Their new play, “An Iliad,” brings the Classical Greek tragedy to life in a time-traveling narrative created by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. The play’s director, as well as the artistic director of Theatrical Outfit, Matt Torney, joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes along with lead actor Lee Osorio to talk about the production and what it has to say about modern times.
Homer’s “Iliad,” the 2,500-year-old Classical poem recounting the Trojan Wars, is considered the oldest work of literature in the Western canon. “We were looking for something that could capture the scale of the times we’re living through,” said Torney. “Particularly when everything is moving so fast, and changing so fast, there seemed to be something rich in looking back to beginning stories, origin stories, the first stories, so that we could look at them through fresh eyes and test ourselves against them…Two great nations fighting with one another; the sense of chaos, the sense of intensity, it just all felt incredibly familiar.”
The play follows a fictionalized Homer, referred to as The Poet, as he tells the story of the Trojan Wars to listeners across multiple timelines. Osorio plays The Poet, who’s been a passive observer throughout history through war after war, lamenting the cycles of violence he witnesses. “One of my favorite lines comes in the first five minutes of the play,” said Osorio. “He says, ‘Every time I tell this story, I hope it will be the last.’ He hopes that this message of, ‘make different decisions; choose grace,’ will be heard.”
In this new “Iliad,” connections are drawn between present-day conflicts and the wars of ancient Greece – very intentionally, according to Torney. “The reason that the ‘Iliad’ is still read, I believe, is that it touches on some deeply human and eternal themes: love of home, desire for glory, the nature of war, and the way that it cycles through our history. But the genesis of this particular adaptation came in the early 2000s, when Lisa and Denis wanted to make a piece that would respond to the wars in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan.” He continued, “There’s a kind of sad irony that we’re presenting this play just weeks after the end of the war in Afghanistan. And everyone’s asking questions like ‘What did it mean? What was it for? Was it worth it?’”
Osorio struggled with these questions, describing difficult rehearsal days tackling themes of war and wrathful nations, while America simultaneously exited its own 20-year conflict in Afghanistan. “The reason I hope people come to see it is at the end of the day, it is a story of hope, of what happens when we choose grace and how, if only for a moment, we can have this peace that we so desperately need as a nation right now.”
With an ambitious script incorporating hexameter rhyming, occasional Classical Greek, and an original score by cellist Deisha Oliver and arts collective Multiband, the play promises to be a thought-provoking and transportive experience.
“When you hear, woven throughout this piece, these moments of sung Greek, I hope it just sort of bends time a little bit, like a little trick of the mind, as you can imagine what it might have been like to be there 2,500, 3,000 years ago,” said Torney. He also described the music, uniquely tailored for the show. “Large sections of the play are underscored with completely original music that was composed in the room, to fit exactly with what Lee was doing, and the way that he was speaking, singing, describing, exploring this character and his language.”
“An Iliad” will be on stage at the Balzer Theatre at Herren’s from Sept. 15 – Oct. 10. The Balzer Theatre will be requiring vaccinations or a negative COVID test procured within 48 hours before the event and has new HVAC equipment providing ample ventilation to protect the safety of its guests. More information and tickets are available at www.theatricaloutfit.org/shows/an-iliad/.