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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

'An Iliad’ for All Time

Jim DeVita's tour de force at the Rep

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The Iliad is one of the oldest stories still being told. It’s not so much a pillar of world literature as a living trunk that continues to grow branches. The latest offshoot, An Iliad, is the Obie-winning adaptation by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, directed by John Langs at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

The stage design by Andrew Boyce is a visual marker: it’s a ruin but not an ancient one. With dirty broken bricks and rubble heaps suggesting World War II Europe, the stage points to An Iliad unbound by time and place. The sole actor visible for most of the production, Jim DeVita, plays the Poet, who is Homer, The Iliad’s legendary author, but also every bard who ever recorded the stories of every war.

Sooty and haggard, and dressed like a refugee from any number of recent conflicts, the Poet occasionally declaims in Homeric Greek but conducts most of his multi-faceted monologue in English—with poetic flights of translation as well as earthy contemporary vernacular. The text is acutely ironic, spiked with humorous relief, but focused on the grim reality of war where honor is fleeting and carnage overwhelming. “It’s some trick in our blood,” the Poet says, causing anger to flame into the berserker humiliation Achilles wreaked on Hector’s corpse as well as road rage on American highways. None of us is entirely immune.

DeVita’s performance is a tour de force in word and gesture as the Poet role-plays Agamemnon, Hermes and other mortals and immortals, and strikes the pose of archers and mothers with babies at their breast. He is funny and anguished, and turns to a bottle of tequila to numb the horror of the Trojan War, whose slaughter triggers memories of the 15th-century siege of Constantinople and the 20th-century siege of Sarajevo and all the ego-driven, greedy destruction before and since.

An Iliad is a one-man play but the Poet is not alone. The spectral image of a woman, the Muse (Alicia Storin), is seen above the stage, playing anxiously on her cello.

An Iliad runs through March 23 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.