Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
August 24, 2012
The blind poet. The Griot . The Minstrel. The Bard. In an oral tradition, they passed down the myths, legends and history that shaped a country and a culture.
Whether or not there was actually a Homer, and scholars are still debating the question, there was a series of someones who told the epic tale of The Iliad, the vibrant, violent saga of the Trojan War. One of these storytellers is among us now, both reluctant and compelled to tell us about the victors and victims, gods and goddesses, women and warriors of that antiquated conflagration of 1200 B.C.
Except that in “An Iliad,” at the La Jolla Playhouse, in a chilling co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, it isn’t just about Greeks and Trojans. This is a story of war itself – exhilarating, excruciating and inevitable.
In 100 intense, lyrical, musical, gut-wrenching minutes, we hear a lot of detail about that war and its key players, from Helen and her “face that launched a thousand ships.” to the heroic and horrific Hector and Achilles. But we also hear, in one stunningly uninterrupted list, the whole history of war, every major conflict fought worldwide, from ancient Greece to modern Syria. It’s a heart-stopping moment.
The magnificent re-imagining of the Homeric classic, working from the much- heralded translation by Robert Fagles , was adapted by actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson.
Now Peterson directs veteran Shakespearean actor Henry Woronicz and his melodious muse, acclaimed double bassist Brian Ellingsen , who’s been with the show from the beginning. Together, on a nearly naked stage, they bare their artistic souls.
Spouting and spewing, cringing and incredulous, Woronicz relates the events of several weeks in a decade-long conflict, sometimes poetically, sometimes in modern vernacular, occasionally in the original Greek.
And Ellingsen punctuates his words, creating a whole civilization with his bass, propulsive and percussive, mournful and melancholic, a timeless soundscape from the primal to the personal; huge, crashing battle scenes, a fading heartbeat, the keening of widowed women.
It’s a glorious duet, set in a wide open space that evokes the monumental and metallic as well as the familiar and intimate, a cavernous theater backstage, with a battalion of lighting instruments lined up like soldiers. The illumination throughout is as stark and epic as the story.
At the outset, the shabbily dressed Poet puts down his suitcase and laments the task before him. He’s been telling this tale for millennia, war-weary as the world.
“Every time I sing this song,” he says, “I hope it’s the last time.”
“What drove them to fight with such fury ?, ” he asks. “The gods, pride, jealousy, Helen being more beautiful than somebody…. It’s always something, isn’t it?”
Anything that feeds our eternal addiction to violence, butchery and horror.
“An Iliad” runs through September 9, at the La Jolla Playhouse.
©2012 PAT LAUNER