'Iliad' wages battle with war at Guthrie Studio

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2013 - 10:50 AM

REVIEW: Stephen Yoakam finds the horror of war in a singular performance of Homer’s epic.

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Stephen Yoakam plays The Poet in “An Iliad,” a one-man show at the Guthrie, adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. Photo by AARON FENSTER

The ancient man has seen every war in recorded history. He has buried countless millions and carries grief in his heavy carriage for each dead soldier. He speaks not of bodies but of names, individuals with lives who were left to bloat and decay on a battlefield.

“Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time,” he tells us, adding that it would be so much easier to talk about these horrors in a bar.

Actor Stephen Yoakam portrays this poet — a prophet really — who scalds our conscience with a celebration of war far more powerful than any condemnation.

“An Iliad,” an adaptation of Homer’s poem by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, gives us this singular preacher narrating the story of Troy and tying those epic battles to all of civilization’s carnage — and to the mundanity of everyday life.

“Achilles is addicted to rage, as so many of us are,” Yoakam’s poet says, locating the Greek warrior’s volatility in our own trigger impulses. Are we, too, jazzed by the buzzy adrenaline rush of our own righteous anger ?

“You know the feeling, in traffic,” he exhorts us. “Why did you cut me off! The rage!”

Yoakam opened this tour de force Wednesday night in the Guthrie Studio theater. As we sit, contemplating Michael Hoover’s set of a Greek portico framed by modern scaffolding, the lobby elevator opens and out walks this stooped-over street preacher smothered in sweaters, scarves and a heavy coat. Yoakam’s holy man then sings the song of war with all the magic of theater. Yoakam pulls this story out of his soul with a sense of pain, relief and necessity — as a man would pull a thorn from his foot. Benjamin McGovern’s production (with Tom Mays’ lights and Greg Brosofske’s sound) shapes our reception of the Poet’s agony and exhilaration.

Homer’s poem dealt primarily with a very short span in the 10-year Greek siege of Troy. If you need a less-classic reference point (and may the theater gods forgive me), think of Brad Pitt and Eric Bana in “Troy.”

Peterson and O’Hare illuminate, far better than any mere film, the guts and passion — the almost hallucinatory high of battle and that camaraderie between soldiers that noncombatants cannot comprehend.

The Trojan War was caused by many things: honor, jealousy, Aphrodite, Helen, Apollo (yes, always the gods). As the Poet points out, “It’s always something.”

Under McGovern’s direction, there are so many beautiful dramatic set pieces — speeches and stories — where Yoakam fills his lungs and exhausts his lament. There is solemn ritual in his rote recitation of the names of wars starting in Sumer and Sargon and stretching to Europe, Africa, America and Afghanistan. He sketches in our minds a picture of the bodies littering no man’s land in World War I, and he gives those bodies names, reminding us that these were lives and not simply casualties.

The grandest story, of course, is the contest between Hector and Achilles, both doomed by their appetite for blood.

The power of “An Iliad” is its refusal to cluck with self righteousness, as so many preachy agitprop dramas do. (You know, geeks dressed in leotards howling at George Bush.) Yoakam’s Poet is a brawny and vexed man who understands the terrible beauty of this vicious sport. And by wading into that mysterious realm with honest integrity, he lets this pool of spilled blood tell its own story.

In fact, this Poet conjured the memory of another man — a prophet, himself — similarly aggrieved by battle.

“We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground,” said Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

“An Iliad” tilts toward that same sense of awe — a terse understanding that only the war dead can speak for themselves. 

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299 • Follow on Twitter: @GraydonRoyce

  • AN ILIAD

    What: Adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. Directed by Ben McGovern.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Fri., Tue.-Thu.; 1 & 7 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Ends May 26.

    Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.

    Tickets: $29 and up, 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org

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