Sunday night of An Iliad’s opening weekend found me headed down to one of my favorite theaters, Upstream Theater, where the work is always interesting. I attended this St Louis premiere with one of my favorite gals and the actor of this one man show, Jerry Vogel, is one of St Louis’ finest. Director Patrick Siler created an evening of intense storytelling and music; the music provided with great finesse by Farsid Soltanshahi.
Translated from Homer’s The Iliad by Robert Fagles and written into an hour and forty minute story by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, An Iliad is loosely the story of the Trojan War. Mostly it is a rant against war and the overwhelming emotions that often fuel war; a rage against rage, so to speak. Vogel plays The Poet, a man compelled to sing his song one last time, but who emerges battered and bruised from the telling. As he locks eyes with every member of the audience, often walking off the stage and around his listeners, Vogel draws us into his story of the Trojan War, and his own anger at the brutality and uselessness of all wars keeping time with the outrages he describes. This is one of Vogel’s best performances.
Soltanshahi paces Vogel’s telling with guitar, drums and oud. At one point, as the war escalates, Vogel’s voice is drumming us with his staccato delivery and Soltanshahi is matching it with the percussion. It’s beautifully done. Sometimes the music seems to lead Vogel to the next idea, especially as his muses leave him to struggle on alone. Together the two men spin a tale worthy of Clotho and weave this warning of what happens when you cannot learn restraint. At one point, when Vogel’s Poet cannot continue, Soltanshahi walks up on the stage, places a hand on his shoulder and the men seem to gather the strength to go on. Patrick Huber’s set is simply done. Katie Donovan’s costume for The Poet seems at once modern, ancient, and timeless. Joseph W Clapper’s lighting design is effective and appropriate for the space and there is a wonderful moment when The Poet talks of Achilles’ shield that has a particularly lovely effect. Everything is kept simple so the story and the music can, and do, shine. What isn’t clear in the script is why The Poet needs to tell this story one more time. He breaks down at one point, saying, “I can’t do this anymore,” and I wondered why he is. But then he veers away from the Trojan War and the story becomes a warning about the danger of anger and by the time we are back to the siege of Troy, I no longer was concerned with why, only delighted with the how. Another affecting moment is when the Poet recites a long list of documented wars down the ages. An Iliad leaves the audience with plenty to talk about on the way home. Vogel’s storytelling is clear and affecting and raises questions about war, the concept of dying with glory, the idea that gods never die. It also raised some questions for me, as he spoke of the petty jealousies of the gods, as to why humans create the gods they do. Vengeful, spiteful, immature and impetuous, gods tend to be the product of the people who invent them. Which leaves me to ask, in gods, as in leaders of countries, don’t we want someone smarter than ourselves, stronger, more likely to better our lives than to lead us into quarrels and war?An Iliad continues at the Kranzberg Arts Center through June 9th.