Matthew Reddin

War is Hell

The Rep’s "An Iliad" seeks to modernize the Homeric epic to reflect on today’s wars.

By - Feb 26th, 2014 11:49 am
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James DeVita serves as the Poet in "An Iliad," a one-man, contemporary retelling of the Trojan War.

James DeVita serves as the Poet in “An Iliad,” a one-man, contemporary retelling of the Trojan War.

The story of the Iliad is one of the oldest ever told, an epic poem of the Trojan War that sings of the Greeks’ victories and losses in the last year of the war. Since this oral tale was first written down in approximately the eighth century B.C., it has been told and re-told many times – most recently, in An Iliad, a one-man adaptation of the epic, currently being staged at the Milwaukee Rep with James DeVita in the lead role. And his director, John Langs, knows why the story is still being told: Because it keeps happening anew.

“Homer unpacks war, and all of its political and personal and emotional cul-de-sacs,” Langs says. “This play looks at war honestly, in all its aspects.”

That honesty can be brutal. The Rep’s set, designed by Andrew Boyce, is a blown-apart building, rubble, scaffolding and detritus strewn across it. DeVita appears to us gritty and militarized, with a buzz cut and a ragged desert scarf around his neck. And that’s before he speaks a word.

Those words might surprise theatergoers expecting pompous oratory of the “Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing” variety. This retelling of the Iliad, Langs says, is steeped in contemporary phrasing and syntax, a metatextual decision made by adaptors Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson and also one referenced by DeVita’s poet himself as a way to keep the audience paying attention to what’s going on – and to satisfy his own demons. As Langs and DeVita see it, the poet is an eternal figure doomed to live through all wars and continually tell this same story to new generations,  as wars continue to rage without sign of ceasing.

“There’s all these contemporary intrusions into what would normally be a straight Homeric telling of this piece,” Langs says. “He can’t help himself. He goes off script. He is compelled to try and make this thing real.”

RepIliadPosterJust telling this story is a challenge, much more so as a one-person play, but both Langs and DeVita have experience working together in such a format. They first met at American Players Theatre eight years ago, and have since worked together on a variety of shows, including the one-man show written and performed by DeVita, In Acting Shakespeare. Their history together, Langs says, makes the rehearsal process easier than it otherwise might be.

DeVita “is one of the best actors I’ve worked with,” Langs says. One of the critical elements he thinks DeVita has brought to the role is his extensive training in the Suzuki method, an intense style of acting that emphasizes the body and movement. The words of An Iliad are important, of course, but with DeVita speaking them, Langs says, the play becomes a sort of kinetic ballet as well.

Unlike other productions, that kinetic ballet has an accompanist: cellist Alicia Storin. Langs knew he wanted a female cellist for the play as soon as he read the script, wanting both the near-human richness of the cello’s sound and the presence of a woman, the gender he says was often left with the cost of war after their male counterparts were killed. She also doubles as the poet’s muse, lending him the artistry needed to tell his story.

But for all its artistry, Langs says the play’s true strength remains that brutal honesty about the true nature of war. It’s the sort of play he’s always looking for, as an artist and director, and doesn’t always find. With this play he says, “You can’t help but understand” the “disturbing and damaging human cost of war…You feel like this matters.”

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of An Iliad opens Friday, Feb. 28 and runs through March 23. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased at (414) 224-9490 or the Rep’s box office.

it-gets-better-show-detailPREVIEW: It Gets Better at the Marcus Center

The “It Gets Better” Project began in September 2010 as a Youtube-driven phenomenon, offering messages of hope to LGBT youths to outlast bullying in schools and look forward to a positive future as adults. Since, the campaign has teamed up with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles for a production that blends theater, music and multimedia for a stage show with the same message as that wave of viral videos. The benefit of this version: it comes with local outreach and a community choir that will join the performers on stage during the show.

At the Marcus Center, Sunday, March 2 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $17, $14.50 for kids and students; call (414) 273-7206 or visit the Marcus Center box office to order.

FlashdanceMusicalPREVIEW: Flashdance at the Marcus Center

Apparently, turning classic ‘80s movies into Broadway musicals is a thing now, with Flashdance just one theatrical remake among the ranks of Ghost, 9 to 5, Dirty Dancing, Xanadu, Hairspray and the recently announced Back to the Future musical. The thing about Flashdance, though, is that the original already had song and dance built in, which surely made it easier for the producers to recraft this romance between an exotic dancer aspiring to become a professional artist and the owner of the steel mill where she works by day.  It also means you know some of the songs you’ll be treated to at the Marcus Center starting next week – “Manhunt,” “Maniac,” and “Flashdance… What a Feeling” for starters – but will also find 16 brand-new tunes to enjoy as well. The musical made its 2008 West End premiere in London and later went to Broadway.

Flashdance the Musical, Tuesday, March 4, through Sunday, March 9; tickets range from $30 to $85. Call (414) 273-7206 or visit the Marcus Center box office to order.


The Quasimondo: Love and Cthulhu, through March 1

Youngblood: The Edge of Our Bodies, Hot Water Wherehouse, through March 1

Windfall Theatre: The Petrified Forest, through March 1

First Stage: The Cat in the Hat, Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, through March 2


Milwaukee Chamber Theatre: October, Before I Was Born, through March 9

Milwaukee Rep: Woody Sez, Stackner Cabaret, through March 9; The Whipping Man, Stiemke Studio, through March 16

First Stage: Anatole, Todd Wehr Theatre, through March 16

In Tandem: Chesapeake, through March 16

Fireside: Mary Poppins, through April 20

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