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The Iliad predates the life of Aeschylus, the oldest of the Greek tragedians whose plays survive, by a couple of centuries. Given that what we think of as the origins of stage drama didn’t come together until 200 or so years after Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, it’s appropriate that An Iliad—a solo-actor adaptation now at Studio Theatre—is performed on the least adorned stage I’ve ever seen there. The bare, black-painted brick wall of the Mead Theatre space is exposed; stage lights and rigs litter the floor; mops and brooms and bottles of industrial cleaning fluid lean in corners, waiting to be tripped on or kicked over. Scott Parkinson, the slight, energetic, ageless-looking actor in the role of our unnamed narrator—is he Homer?—enters directly from bustling 14th Street NW via the fire door. He wears a shabby coat and hat, and his battered suitcase seems very heavy. He’s been singing this long, bloody story for a bloody long time, and his introductory recollections of how various ancient audiences have received it make him seem like a sort of Dactylic Hexameter-spouting Jacob Marley, bone-weary but doomed to walk the earth retelling this, the earliest of war stories, until we’ve beaten our Bushmaster AR-15s into ploughshares.
But force of habit is strong, and soon Parkinson lights once again into his Ur-war story. Fear not, it’s told mostly in contemporary English prose, not Hellenic verse. Musician Rebecca Landell arrives to offer mournful underscoring and suspense-stoking accents to our narrator’s account, which over the course of 95 minutes increasingly gives itself over to a metatextual sermon on humankind’s addiction to rage and thirst for slaughter. Homer’s poem, as the novelist and essayist Umberto Eco has pointed out, is full of lists, to which co-adapters Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare have added one more: a sequential, climactic recitation of armed conflicts, from the Trojan War right up to the era of aerial drones remote-piloted by civilian contractors reared on video games. It’s moving, in the reflexive way that hearing any litany of tragedies is moving, but to me it felt like a last-ditch attempt to give the piece an emotional resonance it had failed, in the preceding 90 minutes, to earn.
I’m at a loss to diagnose why I experienced this piece, so cleverly adapted and performed with such consummate skill by Parkinson and Landell, at such a remove. Its didacticism seemed to blunt its potential to make me feel anything, and maybe that’s intentional: After all, Achilles’ bottomless anger is what perpetuates the death and suffering on both sides. Perhaps sweeping emotion itself—the main ingredient that separates storytelling from more efficient forms of persuasion—is suspect. This is a serious, honorable piece of theater made with evident care by talented artists. I’m just not sure it says anything that Edwin Starr’s “War” didn’t cover in 3 minutes, 25 seconds, with its naked appeal to emotions via a Homeric groove.