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About a third of the way through Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s production of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad, all the things you once knew about Greek mythology come back to you. Like pieces in a puzzle, the relationships between Hector and Priam, Agamemnon and Achilles, and various meddling gods connect and you are emotionally invested in the outcome, even if you already know the tragic ending to the story.
Adapted from Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s story of the Trojan War, An Iliad tells of the epic conflict fought over the kidnapped Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships.” Just as Homer told the tale to audiences millennia ago, this production features only one performer, Taffety Punk company member Esther Williamson. Using only sand to mark her stage in Capitol Hill Arts Workshop’s spare black box, she begs the muses to sing the story through her so she can relate the tragedy to her listeners.
The heavy language of Fagles’ translation is gone, replaced with contemporary phrases so that Williamson can both simplify the story and make the events relatable to audiences who aren’t as well-versed in ancient Greek history. This works in some contexts, like when she name-checks different U.S. cities to explain how many Greek men were recruited to fight, but less well in others, like when she screams “Aleppo!” while describing the lasting impact of the Trojan War. It’s a slightly shocking disjunction that pulls you out of the tearful old story. Before you can process the connection, you’re plunged back into the final battle between Hector and Achilles.
Summarizing a decades-long war into a 90-minute monologue can prove difficult, especially when faced with an audience that might not remember every character’s role from that high school English class, but Williamson meets the challenge by using her whole body to tell the story. Beyond throwing herself on the ground and expertly miming arrows, she traces set pieces with her arms, marking the limits of Troy down to using her hand as the kingdom’s flag. Overseen by local movement artist Dody DiSanto, the physical aspects of the production keep things engaging, even when the pacing of the narrative slows.
To shake things up and put his own spin on the classic story, director Dan Crane has brought in local minimalist post-Americana duo Hand Grenade Job to provide the soundtrack. The idea is a good one—Beck Levy and Erin McCarley’s mournful tunes strike many of the same nerves as Williamson’s performance—but the audience is left wanting more from this collaboration. The low, resonant bass strums and high-pitched whistles function more like sound effects than a full soundtrack, and when Williamson implores the muses to sing in her, you wish the musicians could sing as well.
The emotional heft of the war’s many casualties becomes overwhelming, at times to the point of restlessness. Every five minutes, it seems a character is losing a best friend, a spouse, or a child. But just when you’re starting to question why you’re sitting through something so heartrending, Williamson reminds you of the point of the evening. An Iliad has no intention of explaining exactly why the Trojan War was fought. As she notes, the only real reason anyone cites is the overwhelming pride of Achilles and Hector. What she wants her audience to remember is the cost of war: the orphaned children, the bereft parents, the mourning friends.
In the play’s final act, Williamson lists the conflicts that followed in chronological order, from the Punic Wars to the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those wars too, people lost loved ones. Several thousand years and several thousand miles later, the message of An Iliad remains painfully relevant.
545 7th St. SE. $15. (202) 355-9441. taffetypunk.com.