‘An Iliad’ an intense, engaging play kicks off return of live theater to southern Vermont

By Bob Behr
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Imagine this. The world you see is not all there is. Your world is really one of gods, goddesses, human men and women, and half-human/half-gods, all with big hearts, big egos, and a tendency to throw temper tantrums. Everyone’s got baggage, stories, agendas. It’s enough to make your head spin. And it’s enough to break your heart. This, and more, is the amazing world of the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem first written and performed in Greece nearly 3,000 years ago.

David Bonanno turns in an engaging performance in ‘An Iliad.’

An enduring work of literature that was composed not to be read from the page but to be heard in live performance, the story of the Iliad is fitting subject matter for the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company’s first dramatic production of its summer season, following the Covid-19 shutdown last year.

It’s a season of music, theater and special events under a spacious tent on the grounds of the Playhouse’s Walker Farm – a season that deserves to be kicked off with a drama that reaches for the sky.

To be clear, what’s on stage is not a mere recitation of Homer’s epic, nor is it a retelling of the story in modern-day costumes. Called An Iliad (not the Iliad), this is an original play in which Homer’s characters figure hugely. And playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, taking a few liberties, have extended their drama’s timeline right up to our own world of 2021.

The result, in one evening, is everything theater should be: intense, soul-searching, funny, tragic.

Weston Playhouse veteran David Bonanno is the Poet, a Homer-like figure doomed to travel the world unburdening himself of his stories of earthly wars and mythic entanglements. He’s an exhausted, cynical character but he’s retained his compassion and his sly wit. He begins his storytelling just as Homer began the Iliad (“Rage … this is the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.”) and while there are quiet moments of respite as his narrative progresses, the Poet keeps steering us back to the rage and revenge that generates war and loss of lives.

One actor stands on the stage, speaking for an hour and 44 minutes without an intermission. Playwrights Peterson and O’Hare meet this challenge with plenty of subtle shifts in mood, language and pace. Bonanno becomes dozens of characters, male and female, young and old – Achilles, Helen, Agamemnon, Hera, Zeus and many others – each with his or her own voice. Sometimes we hear Homer’s words directly (from the vibrant modern translation by Robert Fagles) and often we hear modern speech. It’s all beautifully, artfully blended.

Bonanno as the Poet is joined on stage by his Muses, a circle of musicians/actors – Timmy Thompson, Nadia Belaouchi, Emma Diner, Sage Jepson, Daelynn Jorif, Gracee Street, Alexander Tan and Cole Thompson. They are a sort of Greek chorus, serving to intensify or lighten the mood, punctuating the Poet’s relentless torrent of words.

But it’s Bonanno who dominates. Bonanno and An Iliad’s director Meredith McDonough have navigated all kinds of treacherous waters quite skillfully. Though the Iliad’s gods and heroes could be caricatures, most are depicted here with complexity. And though rage and revenge loom everywhere, it’s other emotions – grief, parental love, devotion to homeland – that make the Poet’s story a human tragedy and not a comic book populated by action figures.

Deep emotions turn the Poet’s story into a human tragedy.

An Iliad’s creative elements are spot-on. From scenic designer Lex Liang’s sandbag-strewn set to Kathleen Geldard’s torn and tattered costumes to Mark Barton’s subdued lighting, the overall effect is one of an austere, war-weary world.  Composer Jenny Giering, sound designer Sharath Patel and music director Yan Li have created a subtle listening experience for the audience. It’s worth noting that An Iliad’s soundscape is  performed onstage by Yan Li with only his piano’s keyboard and the piano’s inner harpstrings. In its own way, the soundscape adds a thoughtful voice that sometimes echoes and sometimes counterpoints Bonanno’s.

Indoors or out, live theater can be a profound experience. And so it was for this reviewer, after months at home in front of a screen. On the evening of this performance, as Bonanno walked onstage, there was plenty of light in the sky – and at the same time we all knew there was a threat of rain. And then, the poet and his muses and musicians worked their magic. I was pulled into this ancient faraway story. I also felt roughed-up by the reminders of our modern-day politics, war and contagion. Beyond the tent, Weston contributed something reflective to the soundscape: birds singing, a couple of cars quietly gliding past on Route 100, a couple of planes softly crossing the sky.  None of these things were distractions. We stayed focused on the evening’s story, and finally it grew totally dark outside; the stage lights went out too And then the skies opened up, as if it had been written in the script.

An Iliad plays under the tent at Walker Farm, 703 Main St., Weston,  through Friday, Aug. 6.

Matinees at 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Evening performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays. Adult tickets range from $50 to $74. Discounts available for students, veterans and Vermont residents. For tickets, click here or call the box office at 802-824-5288. Please note: Audience seating has been reduced to maintain safe physical distance. Singles, pairs or groups are safely distanced from other individuals not in their party.

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