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David Bonanno reminds us of how in our culture we depend—almost to the point of addiction—on the kindness of actors.
David Bonanno as The Poet. Photo courtesy of Weston Playhouse Theatre Company.
The Tent at Walker Farm, 703 Main Street, Weston, Vermont
July 14th - August 6th
Box office: 802-824-5288 or www.westonplayhouse.org
Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky
A man walks onto a stage, none the better for wear. He’s clad in a crushed fedora, jeans held up with a piece of rope, a ratty trench coat missing any belt it might ever have had, a nondescript shirt in the same shade of not quite grey/not quite brown/not quite moldy green as everything else, and he’s clutching a battered suitcase (no wheels) tied together with an old bungee cord. (Costumes are by Kathleen Geldard.) His shoulders are a little stooped; his demeanor is a little deferential.
“Waiting for Godot?” Willy Loman unmoored from Brooklyn? After a quick glance towards the cemetery that is just visible beyond the open-air sides of the Tent at Walker Farm, the tramp-like guy smiles shyly at us, deposits the suitcase, and starts singing in Greek.
So begins director Meredith McDonough’s extraordinary production of “An Iliad,” which is basically a one-man show, here delivered by the chameleonic, intrepid, unfailingly compelling actor David Bonanno. Remember how millions got through the pandemic year by streaming television series, movies, and plays? This is a reminder that in our culture we depend—almost to the point of addiction—on the kindness of actors. It is at our peril that we take for granted their chops and dedication, because few of them are getting rich doing what they do. In this case, Bonanno pulls up his guts to render a stunning version of one of the greatest stories ever told. If you thought you knew the Trojan War, or, for that matter, Homer’s Iliad, look again. Maybe you did and do, but this embodied and voiced angle on things pits humor against hubris and heartache against heroism.
“An Iliad” is, of course, just one of dozens—if not hundreds—of retellings of what went on a few millennia ago in a city on the coast of what is now Turkey. This play, adapted from Homer’s epic by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, features a single role so demanding that in New York, the performances were split between O’Hare and Stephen Spinella. Among other things, therefore, Bonanno gets points for going it solo for three weeks. He is not quite alone here, however, as composer Jenny Giering has provided an original score for piano, voices, and a few sound effects. (Sound design is by Shareth Patel.) The voices belong to a chorus of muses who witness and amplify the storytelling of the character simply called The Poet. The nine young muses are students from around the US. All have lithe bodies, graceful stage presence, and lovely singing voices. The Poet calls to them, “don’t make me do this alone,” and it is clear that centuries of telling this story have left him scarred. Yet tell it again he does.
The main conceit here is that the horrors and the glories of war become compelling via analogy, translation, impersonation, and transposition. A list of Greek hometowns for the thousands of young soldier boys lost in fruitless fighting fails to register for today’s listeners? The Poet shifts to a list of US locales (mercifully avoiding the word “relatable” but getting the job done). It’s a long list. Does it make more sense now? Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, is too proud to broker a truce. Still sounds heroic and maybe distant? This telling knocks that arrogant general—rendered as someone with a decidedly streetsmart, cocky, even uneducated demeanor—off his pedestal. Yes, sure, he’s kept the boys in line, but what he’s really after are the spoils of war and what would, in today’s world, be another star in his generalship and some kind of promotion and/or monument with his name on it. Still, someone has to be in charge to avert chaos and insurrection. The show features a number of standoffs between pairs of characters, and one of the delights of watching Bonanno at work is seeing him jump back and forth as he impersonates sparring interlocutors. Paris is a narcissistic coward. Achilles digs in his heels (sorry). Andromache’s litany to her dead husband, Hector, is, indeed, an “I told you so” wrapped in a threnody. Bonanno hits it all. Oh, and he’s got a stand-up’s sense of humor and ability to play with ease directly to his audience.
It’s unfair to single out high points in what is, overall, a hundred minutes of thrilling theatre. But here is a salient one: when Bonanno embodies Patroclus (Achilles’ beloved friend and ally) as a “killing machine,” the level of untethered fury and violence to which the Poet yields finally comes to rest with an apology, an analogy to road rage, and a confession that, as a storyteller fated to repeat this tale seemingly in perpetuity but beginning to do so with less frequency, “this is why I don’t do this.” Another is when the aging, weary Poet starts to recall a hot day on the battlefield but can’t quite remember what war featured that hot day. It could have been any of hundreds, dozens of which he lists, and that litany is the point of this play. It could have been in Babylonia or Sarajevo or Gettysburg; it could have been any of the nine Crusades or Dresden or Hiroshima or Aleppo. We never seem to learn, and the glory of both the text and the production is that it becomes impossible for us as a society to disentangle a war story from an anti-war story. If you’ve ever seen or read Euripides’ “Trojan Women” (or any of its dozens of rewritings), you’ve probably encountered this. Ditto, possibly, with “Henry V.” Yes, female survivors are brave and noble and dignified and tragic. They are also rape victims in a one of hundreds of cultures and wars that “accept” women’s bodies as property in the spoils of war.
Although this is basically “a plank and a passion” theatre, designer Lex Liang’s set is a model of “looks simple/speaks volumes” environmental creation. A motley medley of stone steps, a stone bench, a walkway of wooden pallets, and a dirt floor are partially surrounded by sandbags that serve as victims of the Poet’s rage, when he slices into them with a knife that looks almost too big to be safe in a small playing area. Sand oozes out as if were blood. At other point, sand sifts through the Poet’s fingers as he invokes the soul leaving the body. The lighting by Mark Barton does serious duty in abetting a kind of neutral, if sometimes murky, mood, until it yields to harsh fluorescence just before the story shorthands the treachery and deceit of the Trojan Horse. There is no honor in love or in war—more like plenty of love and war as imagined reasons to claim honor.
Weston’s PR makes much of how good it is to be back to attending theatre live and in person. Yes, indeed. But "An Iliad" would be a “don’t miss” even in a season of too many plays; too little time.
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