Notice the title of this production at the Pittsburgh Public Theater is "An Iliad." Sure, the play is based on "The Iliad," but what the creators Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare tell us is that the original has become the universal commentary on the countless wars that followed -- and are yet to come.
Most wars have their chroniclers -- Wilfred Owen, Martha Gellhorn, David Halberstam, Brian Turner -- inspired by Homer, the traditional source of the account of the Trojan War. Epics, though, were first spoken, their tellers shaping the facts, highlighting the heroes, glorifying their heroism and re-enacting their grief, all for dramatic effect. In short, theater, another Greek idea.
"An Iliad" honors that tradition. Its only character, The Poet, is charged -- or burdened -- with carrying Homer's message through the centuries. In the person of Teagle F. Bougere, this bard emerges fearful and uncertain on a rough construction site littered with sand piles, pebbles and work lights. The back wall of the O'Reilly Theater, some areas stripped of wood paneling, is exposed to reveal the building's plain concrete-block structure.
Our Poet is a tramp in dirty rags, wearing a crumpled hat out of a Beckett play and carrying a cheap, battered suitcase where he stashes his booze. Mr. Bougere seizes his audience's attention from the time he takes center stage to the final, dying moments of this retelling of the petulance of Achilles, the meddling of the gods, the resignation of Hector, the wails of the bereaved and the pall of death that defines the battlefield.
"Every time I sing this song, I hope it is the last," laments The Poet, resigned to bearing witness for centuries to the foolishness and savagery of war. Yet, with the echoes of gunfire in Afghanistan and Syria unabated, his retirement is not around the corner.
The playwrights imagine their bard as a soldier in the nine or 10 years of the bloody stalemate between the invading Greeks and defending Trojans, not unlike the futile trench warfare of World War I that was a "mere" four years.
That structure allows the nimble Mr. Bougere to bring a feeling of immediacy and compassion to Homer's words. He's also freed from the formal, often stiff translations to speak in conversational, contemporary language as he moves easily between the various characters, gods and mortals alike.
Assuming we all know the plot (I hope), the play flashes quickly through the details of Achilles' withdrawal from the battle, then loses steam midway through despite Mr. Bougere's unflagging energy. "An Iliad" lasts more than 90 minutes (at least at the performance I attended it did) without intermission. And, it doesn't call for one; an interruption would disrupt its intensity.
The final 15 minutes gather speed and power again as Mr. Bougere drives hard to deliver the punishing and eternal truth of Homer's epic.
Yes, we all can say, "War is hell," but it's important to find that message reinforced as dramatically as "An Iliad" does so well.
Bob Hoover is the former book editor of the Post-Gazette.