How would adaptors go about turning Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, a classic that runs nearly 15,700 lines, into a 90-minute play?
One answer is now onstage at the Studio Theatre in the Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center, where Outré Theatre Company has just opened An Iliad. That’s right: an Iliad, not The Iliad.
Based on a translation by Robert Fagles, adapted by director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare, An Iliad is a show that requires heroic effort and great versatility from its lone performer. That’s right too: This account of the bloody showdown between the raging Greek warrior-god Achilles and the valiant Trojan Hector is delivered by a single actor, a storyteller who must embody gods and godesses, heroes and villains -- even an advice-giving horse.
Avi Hoffman, the creator and star of the award-winning stage show Too Jewish? and two sequels (the second set to open Off-Broadway this fall after it plays Boca Raton’s Willow Sand Theatre May 10-19), gets the starring role in Outré’s An Iliad. The actor, who also has a recurring part on the Starz series Magic City as lawyer Sid Raskin, works hard under the guidance of Outré artistic director Skye Whitcomb to create the kind of richly textured performance necessary to keep an audience captivated throughout this dramatic meditation on the cost of war.
At times, Hoffman is quite engaging, even compelling during the play’s more intense or horrific moments. But his amiable persona and the way he works an audience sometimes blunt the force and dramatic potential of An Iliad. The way he evokes Achilles’ horse Xanthos, for example, is more Mr. Ed than Iliad. In other words, he’s playing a role that isn’t an entirely comfortable fit.
Set designer Sean McClelland places Hoffman into an eerie, blood-red bunker dotted with plastic gas containers, bullets and camouflage netting. Lighting designer Stephanie Howard tints his face red when the battles he’s describing turn particularly bloody, then bathes him in golden light as he speaks of the glorious shield made for Achilles as he prepares to hunt down and slay Hector. Danny Butler’s subtle sound design delivers a “whoosh” when the gods manipulate mortals whose battles they follow, the text suggests, as if a years-long war were a bloody game.
Slides projected periodically on the set’s back wall underscore the elegance of Troy before its destruction by the Greeks and, far more meaningfully, the predictable costs when nations resort to savage combat. Those images and the text point out that, though the way we fight has changed from Homer’s era to today, war’s tragic human toll is a constant.