It's a tale as old as time: Go to war. Don't learn lesson. Repeat.
The Poet of "An Iliad" has seen every battlefield dating to ancient times and recounts the Trojan War as described in Homer's epic poem, "The Iliad," without ever losing sight that nothing much has changed. Wars pile up, one upon the other, and add to his repertoire.
"An Iliad" writers Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson were inspired by Homer, but they declare their purpose by taking contemporary detours. And there's another twist: One actor plays The Poet and all the key players of the Trojan War -- Agamemnon, Achilles, Hector, Helen, Andromache, Priam and more.
Actor Teagle F. Bougere was working his way up to the task with director Jesse Berger when they met in a sun-soaked rehearsal space at the O'Reilly Theater, where "An Iliad" continues the Pittsburgh Public Theater season. Actor and director met in 1997, when Mr. Berger was an assistant director at the Shakespeare Festival in Washington, D.C., and Mr. Bougere played Casio in "Othello."
They have been looking for ways to work together since, and the stars have aligned in Pittsburgh, where Mr. Berger has been an occasional guest director.
"I'm always interested to come back here, but 'An Iliad' appealed to me particularly because it's the kind of play that I love, with great language and connecting the classical stories of humanity with contemporary life, and it does it in a beautiful and imaginative way. And I knew in the O'Reilly space this play would be particularly resonant," Mr. Berger said.
Mr. Bougere, making his Pittsburgh debut, was attracted to the challenge on a number of levels.
"To be able to play all those characters and tell the whole story alone is such a challenge, it appealed to me right away," he said. "And the story is still so pertinent. So it's not just an exercise in 'watching Teagle do a classic.' It's really moving in terms of two things, particularly for me, the war, and how wars continue to happen and we keep repeating the same mistakes. And the play is so personal, because it deals with rage and the individual. So it takes the war and it starts in a microcosm and then moves to the bigger picture."
The Poet enters in an agitated state and proceeds to bear witness to events and find links between then and now. The director refers to the communal idea of a campfire story, and the O'Reilly thrust space can also play like an ancient amphitheater, appropriate for the story of the Trojan War.
A quick summary, with some of the characters in "An Iliad":
Paris, a prince of Troy, falls for Helen and steals her away from her Greek husband, Menelaus, who sends his brother Agamemnon to retrieve his bride. Paris' brother, Hector, is the hero of Troy, but the Greeks counter with the great warrior Achilles. And what of Helen, that "face that launched a thousand ships"? It also launched a war that killed thousands until a wooden horse turned the tide, and thus we have "beware of Greeks bearing gifts" as another quote for all time.
It's a sad story, one with a heavy death toll, that's been told through the ages, even as other wars have raged.
"From the moment I hit that stage, I have an objective, which is to get them to see what we continually do; what I've seen over and over again," Mr. Bougere said. "[As The Poet,] I've been to all these wars ... and it keeps happening. There's also the language -- I'm often seduced by language. I've done a lot of classical work, to the point where five years ago I said I want to do something contemporary; I want to be a contemporary black theater guy. And I love classical works -- I didn't feel like, oh, poor me -- but this play allows both. I read it and said, 'How could any actor not want to do this?' "
Mr. Berger smiled at this. "If I knew you were sitting home asking that question, I wouldn't have been so worried about whether you'd say yes," the director said.
Jumping into this project is a bear for any actor. A monologue might recount the making of armor in great detail. Dialogue might mean turning on a dime among a group of characters.
Mr. Bougere said he approaches these characters as he would any other, even a scene between Hector and his wife, Andromache, and baby son Astyanax, who is just a presence but one Mr. Bougere wants you to know is there.
"I was writing about this this morning at home, that I need to specify these people more. But at the heart, it's about what [the characters] want. Priam comes in at the end, and what does he want? He wants his son's body. It's really simple. He's going to do anything he can. ... What does he want? What's in his way? With that, I believe I could tell you the story right now, sitting here, and that's because it's a beautifully written story."
Both men agree that it would be a mistake for The Poet to lapse into the role of narrator. On this particular day, they were discussing point of view when Hector faces Achilles on the battlefield -- not from the storyteller's perspective but from Hector's. The idea is to inhabit all of the characters, including The Poet, who is none too pleased with humanity.
There will be some scenic and prop aids to help Mr. Bougere along the way, and the audience has some work to do, too.
"Every play requires an audience to bring their imagination to it," Mr. Berger said. "But this play is in the way Henry V says [and he paraphrases] 'Oh for a muse of fire ... use your imaginations to piece out our imperfections.' This play, without saying that, asks the audience to meet The Poet halfway and imagine these worlds. It's another reason I love the play. It calls for all of us to sit around the campfire and imagine one of the greatest stories ever told and see what it has to offer us today."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.