While exposure to Iliad, Homer's epic poem about the seemingly never-ending Trojan War, may be standard for most graduates of American public high schools taking college preparatory coursework, it's plausible to assume that few, except the most ardent of lovers of ancient literature, have actually read it in its entirety. However, most can probably recall its basic narrative. Hector, the leader of the Trojan Army, has left behind a family to go fight in the conflict now known as the Trojan War, which leaves him separated from his family for years on end. The poem reflects on the experience of this brave man and that of the opposition (including the powerful Achilles) during that tumultuous time. Themes of honor, revenge, purpose, and loss are explored as well as principles of warfare.
An Iliad, now being presented as a special event at Studio Theatre, is in essence a one-man presentation of this narrative on a sparse stage using inherently theatrical tools. Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare have concocted a script which allows a poet (Scott Parkinson) to tell the story and draw parallels to the modern war experience. The mixture of the old with the modern is somewhat problematic, but under the direction of Studio Artistic Director David Muse, Scott Parkinson (and his muse, musician Rebecca Landell), offers a compelling theatrical performance.
As Peterson and O'Hare allow the poet to expound on modern conflicts, including the idea of America's soldiers, like Hector, leaving their own families to fight, the script becomes slightly too unwieldy for my taste. While I certainly understand the desire to translate Hector's trials into terms to which modern audiences can relate, potentially shed new light on an ancient tale, or draw attention to the idea that although the contexts of wars may be different today, some elements remain constant, the execution of these ideas is far from perfect. Overall, the script makes much more sense and is more cohesive when the Homer's story is not mixed with discussions of modern events.
For example, references to the conflict now engulfing Syria, recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia-Herzegovina only distract focus from Homer's tale. It may certainly be that I will be in the minority here, but my international relations-trained self was put off nearly every time a parallel to the Trojan War and these conflicts (often discussed in list form) was drawn - even if those discussions were sporadic and limited - due to the oversimplification of why wars are fought and how they are conducted. Certainly, some elements of the war experience translate across notional time, space, and other contextual boundaries, and, to some extent, all soldiers are driven by a mission, goal and purpose and live by some honor code, but the tactics, means, and methods of war - and even the reasons why wars are fought, where they are fought and by whom- are largely informed by specific geo-political, economic, and social contexts. If the playwrights wished to carry through the idea of drawing parallels between wars of yesterday and today, they would probably have benefitted from two things: being consistent in drawing the parallels, and ensuring that the discussions were informed by a solid understanding of international politics.
Despite these script troubles, I will say that Parkinson delivers a remarkable tour-de-force performance which runs the emotional gamut. He embodies all of the characters as necessary, while never straying from the idea that he is a poet discussing the characters. His commitment to the performance is never questionable and, although he has a tendency to overact in the moments where he is tasked with conveying the more emotionally-charged elements of Homer's story, he is the epitome of an artist. He commands the audience's attention with words alone. In many cases, one actor alone cannot carry a show and keep the audience engaged. Lucky for Studio audiences, Scott Parkinson is not one of those actors.
Muse's production choices are also conducive to creating a situation where a slightly eccentric, passionate artist is delivering a story. Luciana Stecconi's scenic design captures a not-quite empty backstage of a theater quite nicely and Laree Lentz's costumes draw further attention to the fact that Parkinson is an artsy kind of guy that is not so much concerned with looking professional or polished. Colin K. Bills' lighting design is appropriately minimal while Eric Shimelonis' sound design and varied, emotionally-charged musical compositions further establishes ambience and mood at all points in the play. Landell ably performs these musical compositions on her cello and remains appropriately 'muse-like' throughout the play. She is appropriately engaged while keeping a distance from the poet as he tells his story.