I Sing a Song of Sadness
Actor James DeVita turns An Iliad into an epic tale of war and woe.
A reluctant poet is locked inside the Rep’s Powerhouse stage, deteriorated for the occasion into rubble and craters. Between drinks, he winks like a pal (“It’s so much easier to talk about these horrors in a bar”), apologizes for his failing talents, plays with us in shifting tones and asides – and then evokes the tribal fury and battles that raged for years and the families watching in grief down through the centuries.
Arms outreached or thrusting like spears, fists slamming against metal, voice bellowing where it once ingratiated, the poet is overcome by bloodlust. He races around the Milwaukee Repertory Theater stage like an ancient warrior in combat, collapses in remorse or freezes with the haunted look of a modern survivor of Dresden.
An Iliad in this modern retelling through March 27 was adapted from Homer by director-playwright Lisa Peterson and actor-playwright Denis O’Hare (recently visible as the misguided doctor in the movie The Dallas Buyers Club).
On the surface it sets some implausible tasks.
One actor. Alone for 105 minutes except for a cello-wielding muse behind scrim and high above him, pouring down an almost human counterpoint of wailing chords.
An age-old message we already grasp intellectually – mankind has loved war down through the ages but must give it up.
A familiar story, no surprises. We know about the Trojan War and how horribly it ended, just not how it will unfold in this retelling.
Only live theater and its tools can hurdle such implausibles and turn them into opportunity and victory.
The main tool is actor James DeVita mesmerizing the audience with muscular authority and quicksilver changes of pace. Imagine a Robin Williams gone mad mixing tragedy and comedy. Except this is not Williams, it is styled by DeVita with a similar dynamic command of nuance.
This is an assured entertainer wrapping around a larger theme. Storytelling is the essence of theater when the road traveled becomes more interesting than the outcome. It is one thing to preach about carnage and battle ferocity, of how rage and brutality overcome man’s better instincts. Good theater forces us to feel it, laying bare the bestiality we all carry inside. The sorrow and impaled friends are not sidelights but dead stage center when done right.
The script has stretches of such eloquent storytelling that catch us despite ourselves into hearing with fresh ears, but the authors are theater insiders who know the best moments are “throwaways,” what an actor can do with deft wisecracks and clever delays between anecdotes. Even too much reliance on that tactic doesn’t destroy its effectiveness. We need the emotional interruptions the poet provides, along with the sarcastic comments on how the fates, sometimes in the form of mythical gods, play with all of us whatever the continent or the century.
The audience must accept mixed rewards for the required attentiveness to the words cascading down in rapid pace and density. The actor, however accomplished, which is an understatement in the case of DeVita, cannot overcome dialog and characterization devices that falter in originality, such as scenes inventing Andromache, Hector’s wife, or forcing the actor into imitating too many voices too quickly. So there are letdowns.
But DeVita’s tonal and gymnastic flexibility, and his acting talents for curling his body into different people, keep us engaged – even on edge to see what fevered thoughts will next consume him. He is helped mightily by John Langs’ staging, alert to every opportunity for meaningful motion, and Alicia Storin’s timely appearances as the muse, with pointed punctuations by composer Josh Schmidt.
An Iliad is as much orchestrated production seduction as it is an actor’s tour de force. Andrew Boyce’s scenic design manages to be both barren and hypnotically utilitarian. Holly Payne’s layered costume combines with cannily placed props to free the actor, and Noele Stollmack’s lighting is bold and syncopated like a good percussionist.
Homer’s song has endured for thousands of years not because of its vivid portrayal of skulls crushed and heroes dragged around in doom – though those images add to the power — but the larger insight. There were promising lives inside those bashed skulls and what’s really dragged to doom by war is mankind’s pretense of superiority and nobility.
The poet – desperate to get out and away from this story — is doomed to be enslaved forever. The audience? We feel lucky not to be him, but no longer can walk back into complacent lives. All that formidable theatricality that drew us to the Rep was not a distraction but a chokehold. At some level we remain handcuffed to the poet’s vision and distress. And that makes this An Iliad an epic accomplishment.
Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blogs here.