Undermain's Iliad: A One-Man Iliad
"Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time," says the weary troubadour played by Bruce DuBose at the start of Undermain Theatre's stunning production of An Iliad, a condensed retelling of Homer's epic poem of the Trojan War. As conceived by co-authors Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare in their adaptation of Robert Fagles' translation of the original, the Poet character is an eternal vagabond, condemned to sing and act out the ancient tale of tragedy and sacrifice for going on 3,000 years.
And he does it alone. Or nearly. DuBose shares Undermain's shadowy underground stage, which always feels as dark and foreboding as the bank of the River Styx, with musician Paul Semrad. Strumming a mandolin and playing various harps, drums and gongs, Semrad, who created the music with DuBose, stays busy throughout the 90-minute performance. But he never speaks. DuBose does all the talking, sometimes in Greek, as he brings to life dozens of characters, male and female, from the ancient narrative about war, doomed romance, dead children and vengeful gods.
The Muses have blessed An Iliad with a perfect pair of artists — DuBose onstage and Katherine Owens, his wife, as director — to interpret this piece. It needs an actor who can hold an audience with the sound of his voice and DuBose certainly does that. (You'll recognize that voice from his announcing work on KERA radio and TV.) It also feels as if Owens has pushed DuBose to amp his energy. He can be a laconic presence, but not here. He's ablaze every moment, staring eye-to-eye with the audience, and so eager to express the poetry and music of An Iliad, he sometimes appears to levitate off the concrete floor. (The set by designer John Arnone is framed by gigantic blackboards covered in Greek writing, and huge tables laden with spears, helmets and shields.)
Now in his 29th season as Undermain's leading man, DuBose is wearing his years well. He's grown a scruffy gray beard, and as he peels off the creamy beige suit (costumed by Giva Taylor) that makes him look like a kindly English lit professor on holiday, his physique tells its own story. As the Poet, DuBose lets his shoulders droop and his midsection go soft, like a man who's been too busy traveling from gig to gig for three millennia to waste time in a gym.
An Iliad mixes casual, modern conversation into Homer's poetry, and the authors have kindly shorthanded complicated plot points. It's just assumed that we all know the basics anyway. At the beginning, the Poet says this by way of introduction: "Oh ... the gods, of course. .... Um ... pride, honor, jealousy ... Aphrodite ... some game or other, an apple. Helen being more beautiful than somebody — it doesn't matter. The point is, Helen's been stolen and the Greeks have to get her back."
When he gets to the part about why the war-throttled Greeks didn't quit fighting after nine years of taking a beating from the Trojans, he uses an image we all can relate to: supermarket lines. "You've been there 20 minutes and the other line is moving faster," he says. "Do you switch lines now? No, goddamn it, I've been here for 20 minutes, I'm gonna wait in this line. Look, I'm not leaving, 'cause otherwise I've wasted my time."
DuBose is particularly effective in the heavy section about the battlefield death of Trojan hero Hector and the recovery of his body from the enemy by his grief-ravaged old father, Priam. At one point, the actor lets loose a mournful wail, long and loud, the sound echoing off the walls of the space. It's chilling, but not in the way some theatrical moves feel cheap. This is an organic scream coming from the depths of a man ripped apart by loss. DuBose becomes Priam in that moment, shattered utterly. We have made the journey to that battlefield with him. He's expressing our grief, too.
At the end of An Iliad, the authors have tacked on an epilogue in which the Poet reels off a list of all of mankind's wars, from the Punic and Peloponnesian to modern Syria. The list goes on and on, reminding us of our species' violent history. Other critics have knocked this bit of commentary, but it's necessary to bring the story full circle. The legacy of our lust for carnage — that's the message of this play.
The Poet, so beautifully acted by Bruce DuBose, giving his finest performance in a decade, hardly has the energy to take a bow after all of that. We imagine him falling, exhausted, into bed each night, only to wake the next day to continue his tour, acting out Homer's saga for more audiences in Mycenae, Babylon and Gaul.
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