Our sensibilities are not so different from the ancients as we would have it. The eternal allure of violence, the volcanic charge of rage and a taste for carnage that belies our professed horror if it is with us still.
Denis O’Hare brings this lesson home with a vengeance in An Iliad, a featured Spoleto Festival USA event running through June 3 at the Dock Street Theatre.
A veteran player of stage, feature films and television, O’Hare captured a Tony Award in 2003 largely on the strength of his bravura monologues in playwright Richard Greenberg’s play Take Me Out.
An Iliad, a one-man show, affords O’Hare a similar yet radically removed opportunity.
Written by the actor in collaboration with Lisa Peterson, who also directs, the play takes the scaffolding of Homer’s epic poem — including the mythic figures of Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon and Priam — and delivers a bracing indictment of the ways in which we glamorize violence and perpetuate war.
O’Hare’s character, simply called The Poet, is more than a stand-in for Homer. He is, in the end, our collective conscience. His only props in this minimalist production are an overcoat, a pork pie hat, a battered suitcase and an ersatz bottle of whiskey. But O’Hare’s dynamism as a performer, his mastery of the silences between the speeches, mine the most from a scathing, if occasionally overheated, script.
O’Hare, a Kansas City native and Northwestern University graduate, also owns an Emmy Award for his work in series television. In An Iliad, he punctuates his narration with humorous asides, sometimes engaging with the audience directly, though some of the humor seems rather out of place given the sometimes frenzied monologues. But the audience laughter one hears sounds uneasy at times, which might just be the playwrights’ aim.
Peterson and O’Hare have invested 20 years adapting and honing their take on Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s classic cautionary tale. They debuted the play in 2012, demonstrating that the Trojan War — together with the legacies of all the wars since – continues to speak to us.
An Iliad is at its best investigating the psychic payoffs and dire repercussions of humanity’s attraction to chaos and destruction. This, with much the same potency as the more journalistic 2005 documentary film Why We Fight. The concerns are the same, but the theatrical flair is all Peterson’s and O’Hare’s — with a Homeric assist.
In the end, they remind us of our split personality, yearning for peace, but inexorably drawn to conflict, too often romanticizing warriors while disparaging those who would forge the peace we claim to crave.
IF YOU PLAN TO GO: 7:30 p.m. May 28, May 30, May 31; and 8 p.m. June 2 and June 3, Dock Street Theatre, Charleston. Tickets start at $40.
Bill Thompson is a veteran culture writer who lives in Charleston County.
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