We think of Homer as the first bard, the beginner of dramatic storytelling. But storytelling is as old as dirt: ancient, the collected dust of time that retains the human imprint. From dust to dust we go, and from the dust we live on as stories. Ray Dooley as The Narrator in the bleak ruins of An Iliad seems beyond time, even as he relates the story of Homer’s Iliad, the mighty battles just before the sack of Troy. Dooley drifts on to the stage, looking like any aging white guy who’s been on the road for a few hundred thousand years, his ragged clothes the colors of brush, dried mud and sweat. He stumbles around the dirt and debris onstage, mumbling in Greek, trying to remember what story he’s on for tonight.
The Narrator finally beckons to someone in the front row for a program and sighs upon reading it. He’s a tentative teller, doesn’t really want to go into all that again. Rage. Hubris. Blood. Warriors at war. Women on the ramparts, watching. The interference of the gods. Character in the face of inescapable destiny. Yet he is fated to tell that story yet again, and you know this fate will go on forever. He is at the mercy of the Muse.
The Narrator may be reluctant, but playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare are very eager. They want us to know the now of the story, as well as its everlastingness in the long litany of wars, and give The Narrator many contemporary examples to convey understanding of how big and how long this famous battle really was, and ways to understand on our own terms some of the emotions that drove it.
Dooley, working with guest director Jesse Berger, makes these explanatory interludes some of the most intimate and excoriating moments of the play. And, of course, these are the moments that make the production a play, rather than a storytelling session. It is hardly surprising that An Iliad won a special citation for this combination at the 2012 Obie Awards.
Ray Dooley is surely the most accomplished of the many fine actors working in this area, and this is a rare opportunity to see him working alone on the stage. He is superb in ensembles, but here he performs the special feat of maintaining his time-travelling Narrator and the nuances of The Narrator’s weary emotions, while simultaneously evoking the story’s protagonists and their dusty, blood-soaked world. Agamemnon and Priam, Hector and Patroclus and Achilles—and Achilles’ various armaments—vivify before us. Made only of words, they roar and dazzle and awe.
This short run of An Iliad that opens this PRC2 season follows the marvelous Penelope that closed last season’s run of new plays in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre. Playwright and actress Ellen McLaughlin turned The Odyssey inside out in an innovative contemporization of the ancient story. She also maintained her modern Penelope’s character while evoking others, but she also added a breathtaking layer of complication by at times becoming the Chorus, singing lines she’d just spoken elsewhere on stage, to musical accompaniment. For An Iliad, there’s no live music, but several pieces of delicate and haunting sound by Ryan Rumery that re-sensitize one to the violent story. Seth Reiser’s well-considered lighting also helps keep us a little off-balance and emotionally available to its power, as The Narrator unfolds it in Marion Williams’ costume and set.
An Iliad is a very tight piece of theatrical work, and a powerful beginning for the fall theater season. It is most highly recommended. Maybe we will get really lucky and PRC will bring it back in rotation with Penelope, but don’t hold your breath. This show closes Sun., Sept. 9.