Actor Stephen Yoakam wanted us to know, at the outset of his conversation about “An Iliad,” that there will be no togas in the show. Not if he can help it. And he can, as he is the only performer in the Homer-derived solo work by director Lisa Peterson and “True Blood” actor Denis O’Hare.
“It’s not about the costumes or even about the period — we don’t know who the main guy is or where he is,” Yoakam said before a rehearsal last week at the Guthrie, where the show opens Wednesday. “It’s about the weight of history that this poet, this storyteller is bearing. It’s about what he has to tell us as we see violence all around.”
That weight is formidable, both for the actor and the show, which is told by an aged, wizened Homeric figure and telescopes mythic history of the Trojan War in ways that indict the present.
“All through ‘The Iliad,’ Homer finds interesting ways that show the terrible beauty of war, of violence,” said Yoakam. “He describes in a myriad of ways how weapons enter the body and end life. This play, in going to some really scary places, is ultimately anti-war, anti-violence. The storyteller in it wants nothing more than to be able to stop reciting his tale. But there’s always a new audience, a new place, where they need to hear it.”
The show premiered to critical huzzahs in 2010, and quickly became a must-program work in cost-conscious regional theaters. Productions have been booked everywhere from Berkeley to Boca Raton.
His first one-man show
In a career that has spanned four decades, Yoakam, 60, has played Greek figures under Guthrie leaders Joe Dowling (“The Burial at Thebes”) and Garland Wright (“Medea,” “Iphigeneia at Aulis”). He has done most of the major roles that he has wanted. But he had never done a one-person show.
“I wanted to do it to scare myself,” he said matter-of-factly. “At this point in my career, my life, I’ve just got to go for it.”
That he has. He has no understudy. He has no other actors who can cue him if he makes a mistake. And — he knocked on wood — he has no standbys to cover for him if he should take ill. Did we mention he performs five shows on weekends?
“I’ve really got to take care of myself,” he said. “I’ve done most of the Greeks, Shaw, Shakespeare. It’s a good run. I look around and ask: ‘What do I do to keep the juices flowing?’ ”
A solo show is one of the hardest things an actor can do, said the play’s director, Ben McGovern, who has become a specialist in them. He staged Adam Rapp’s “The Edge of Our Bodies” in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, which he used to program.
“The actor doesn’t have another body on stage to hold that dramatic tension,” he said. “So he or she has to hold that tension with the audience, whether by direct address or going into character.”
A solo show also deprives the performer of partners who can provide moments of rest.
“But if you’re someone with great craft, and a spirit of generosity, you can carry a 90-minute show with aplomb,” McGovern said. “Steve Yoakam is a hero of mine who I first saw in [Anton Chekhov’s] ‘Uncle Vanya’ more than 20 years ago at the Guthrie. He has the breadth of experience, the authenticity, gravitas and conviction to be mesmerizing.”
To prepare, Yoakam contacted a Greek-speaking engineer at the University of Minnesota to help translate an opening passage from Homer that’s incorporated in “An Iliad” in the original tongue.
In the past year, Yoakam has re-read “The Iliad” several times — plus copious ancillary materials. He has placed his script on the floor of his basement in south Minneapolis, and channeled the voices of the 10 or so characters he performs, including Trojan king Priam; his wife, Hecuba, and their warrior sons Hector and Achilles, he of the famous weak heel.
After consulting with colleagues Sally Wingert, Sun Mee Chomet and others who have done successful solo shows recently, Yoakam also has gone on a physical and dietary regimen to build up his endurance.
He does not see the show as a mountain but rather as a chance to put down things he has been carrying around for a while. And he credits McGovern with helping him to get to that place where the show does not feel like a burden.
“I think that ultimately this is a great anti-war project,” Yoakam said. “Because it has so much rage, so much destruction and killing, it gives rise to a disgust in the heart. It says to use what we have to figure out a way to get this right.”