Denis O’Hare in “The Iliad” | Photo by Joan Marcus, Spoleto Festival USA

For 11 years, the Poet has recalled the stories of the Trojan War, even longer than the war itself at this point. Played by writer/actor Denis O’Hare in the one-man show An Iliad, which is based on Homer’s Iliad and plays at Spoleto Festival through June 3, this vagabond-esque Poet tells the audience the story of all wars, something made clear from the very beginning. 

Telling the classic story of the Trojan War as a series of smaller events, stories of war and mourning is by no means a new experience — Alice Oswald’s Memorial, another adaptation of Iliad, is more than a decade old. However, the ways in which writer and director Lisa Peterson and cowriter and performer O’Hare express the events of war are not only evocative and harrowing, but also manage to be humorous and even relatable at times.

On a stage seemingly set to appear unset with lamps and flight cases littered throughout, O’Hare comes not as some grand poet, eager to share his story. Rather, he dreads his task every night, recalling the horrors that men put each other through in the name of country, pride and even revenge. 

The ingenious utilization of the stage’s work lights as a form of stage lighting draws audiences in even closer, removing the barrier of separation between the staged reality and their own. They’re watching a poet recall these events, just as he is acting out onstage, but there is no true distinction between the two. 

Whether O’Hare’s invocation of the muses called the stage lights and perfectly synced sound to aid in his story, the effect they had was to enhance the storytelling, neither overshadowing it nor drowning it out.

The intimacy created by the production’s design choices and O’Hare’s expertly honed delivery is nearly palpable. There’s an energy in the air that refuses to dissipate with the haze onstage. As cities and wars are listed, they all become evocative of the very same things as Homer’s poem, places tangible as they are now; imagining a soldier from each city is far from difficult. 

“These names mean something to me. I knew these boys.”

The Poet, in his reminder of the characters and players, reconciles with the costs of war. The throughline of the production seems not to be the rage that consumed the soldiers of Agamemnon, Odysseus and the rest, but rather the grief which followed. 

Every time a man screamed in rage and threw his own humanity and caution to the wind, grief followed and the Poet, forced to recall these events every night, mourned for each boy he knew.

To witness O’Hare fall to his knees pleading for aid from the muses to help him tell this story is difficult to watch. But to see him do it again and again as he pleads for and as  myriad characters is a sight to behold, an experience that leaves an impact greater than any spear. 

Perhaps O’Hare is channeling Dionysus himself on that stage or hears Calliope over his shoulder. Perhaps he has simply honed his performance to such an extent that it gives off a mirror sheen, reflecting much of the ugliness of our world back at itself from that stage. The Poet reminds audiences time and again that this war was simply one of many, a list so long it takes minutes, without pause, to read aloud.

Channeling divinity or not, one thing remains absolutely certain about O’Hare’s performance: it simply cannot be missed. 

IF YOU PLAN TO GO:  Remaining shows are at 7:30 p.m. May 31 and 8 p.m. June 2 and 3 in the Dock Street Theatre. Tickets are $30.50 to $113.

C.M. McCambridge is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

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