Friday, October 5, 2012
Theater review: An Iliad at Undermain Theatre is dull
Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's first script is "like a trip to the dentist office" -- snooze-worthy.
Cast in the play as the narrator is Bruce DuBose, who is one of the finest actors in the DFW area. Alongside him is Paul Semrad, a brilliant musician who expresses much emotion and commentary with his stellar use of musical instruments both modern and ancient. Directing this pair is Katherine Owens, who is one of the most talented directors in North Texas.
Costume Designer Giva Taylor has an impeccable list of credentials, costuming plays both locally and in New York. The scenic design by John Arnone is masterful. He creates a space that is both a classroom, and a found object reliquary. You feel as if you are in a timeless space of importance. It coordinates beautifully with the art and properties by Linda Noland who turns the set into a living museum of artifacts and musical instruments both old and new. The extensive and complicated use of sound design by Dubose is executed flawlessly by the board sound operator Sean-Michael Galgano.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the talent on the stage and the production quality is first-rate. Unfortunately, all this amazing talent cannot save what is one of the dullest and most boring shows I’ve attended in ages. It is an epic failure.
Homer’s Iliad is a complex, long, monumental story about war. It’s about the events leading to and including the epic siege of Troy. It is a book full of action, sex, rage, war, fidelity, pride, slaughter, family relationships, friendship, betrayal, and violence. It was to be performed by a master story teller over a series of days. An Iliad, the play version, attempts to reduce the numerous elements and subplots, focusing on the core storyline, the main characters and the emotional impact of the events without much success. To encapsulate the full plot of the play version in a paragraph for a review is impossible. One only needs to know that the main character is Achilles and he’s mad at Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces fighting the Trojans. Achilles won’t go to war until he is forced to do so, and he eventually confronts his adversary Hector.
For such a distillation of an epic work reduced to a ninety-six minute play to work effectively, every production element must come coalesce into a single theatrical experience. There is a unified vision here. All the elements work seamlessly together. The music is mostly improvised by both the performers with Dubose chanting some of the original text in Greek. This ambient music is haunting and ethereal. The poetry of The Iliad is gorgeous, the sound effects sublime, the performance by Dubose is breathtaking, and it’s all set in a stunning set. But it’s all for naught because the script and the direction are fatally flawed.
The concept behind the script is that The Poet, who was present during The Iliad (in other words Homer), still lives and he is able to recount to the audience the events as a first hand witness. He also adds modern commentary and makes parallel associations with the events from the past to modern life. In explaining the rage felt by the Greek soldiers, he uses the example of dealing with modern traffic. Yes, I’ve felt anger at being stuck in traffic, but not enough to slaughter a myriad of people. The audience laughs, but upon further reflection we realize that this comparison is not valid. The side commentaries bring humor to the serious story of The Iliad, but they don’t ring true.
As The Poet, Dubose also recites passages from The Iliad, and he’s marvelous at delivering some of the dense poetry and making it accessible.
He’s also required to paraphrase passages, encapsulate plot points, act out some of the characters, and even “stumble” upon names or get them wrong with much humor. Dubose delivers all of this convincingly as it is scripted, but the script betrays him as an actor.
One is never sure what this play is: a critique, a retelling, a commentary, or an excerpted performance of the original text. There is no clarity in the script and there is nothing that as an actor that he can do to save the script.
I happen to own a copy of Fagle’s translation of The Iliad and what I like about this translation is that it makes The Iliad very accessible to modern readers. Somehow, this play turned what is an easy book to read into something hard to follow. I got lost in the story as it was presented in this play, and I know the story.
It didn’t help that Owens muddles the storyline even further with her direction. Because it’s only one person speaking for ninety-six minutes without an intermission, it is important to delineate the beginning and ending of each scene.
The Iliad, like all lengthy modern novels, has scenes. Each scene has a beginning, middle and end, and then the story moves on to the next scene. It is a series of episodes all dealing with the Trojan War. I could hear in the words of the script that there were built in scenes. But the way Owens directed the play, it’s all one continuous long scene and most of it is performed at an even slow and steady pace. Each episode flows into the next without much of a pause to let us know that the scene had ended. This would have worked had she at least built the play’s scenes layer upon layer thus increasing the intensity of the play to a full tilt crescendo. But the play as directed never builds. It felt as if I was listening to a steady, even drumbeat that became mind numbing. I am a big fan of The Iliad and I struggled to maintain interest in the play and found myself fighting the urge to tune out.
This is Peterson and O’Hare’s first script. It suffers from a common flaw found in first time scripts. There is an obvious love of the source material, but forgotten in the writing is one of the most important elements in theatre in that you must engage your audience. The play feels clinical.
If you have never read The Iliad but know of it and have wanted to experience the story, do not rely on this play. It’ll be confusing. Though it takes many liberties, the film “Troy” does a better job telling the story and making you appreciate the grandeur of The Iliad. If you know the work, it’s best to pick up Fagle’s translation and read it. If you are a rabid fan of the work, you may find it interesting, but you will have a difficult time connecting with epic emotions of the source material. If you are unfamiliar with The Iliad, and don’t know the story at all, this is not the place to start. The only people I can imagine thoroughly enjoying this play are an academic audience that crave to hear the words of Homer spoken out loud and will appreciate the great performance by Bruce DuBose of the text. In fact, if DuBose ever decides to perform the original text by Homer, I’m there.
At curtain call, the audience gave both Dubose and Semrad a standing ovation. They deserved it for all the hard work they did on stage. Their performances were marvelous. But as I was leaving, I noticed the audience was quiet and subdued, not excited and exhilarated as one expects after seeing what should have been a magnificent play. One comment made by a patron summed up my feelings about the show: “This play was like going to the dentist office.”
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