Tony Norman: 'An Iliad' speaks loudly about today's wars


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If we're lucky, "An Iliad," the one-person play based on Homer's epic poem, will become a perennial that ambitious high school drama teachers stage after umpteenth revivals of the usual musicals, comedies and family dramas have run their course.

Written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, with a whole lot of assist from thousands of years of human folly, "An Iliad" has finally become the eternally fresh anti-war jeremiad that the blind poet who popularized it 2,800 years ago intended.

"An Iliad," produced by the Pittsburgh Public Theater, uses the decade-long conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans as a template for the nationalism, hubris and sadistic amusement of the gods that have fueled all wars from the beginning. The particulars may vary, but the triviality, wounded pride and self-absorption that make even the "noblest" campaigns a bloody fraud continue.

Sitting in the O'Reilly Theater on a rainy Saturday night watching Teagle F. Bougere's brilliant one-man performance, I thought of the rhetoric coming out of Washington about how to handle the Crimean crisis. There is the usual saber-rattling in the halls of Congress by old men and middle-aged fools nostalgic for wars of their youth that never accomplished anything except lining the pockets of arms manufacturers.

Accusations of national impotence in the face of Russian aggression are directed at a president who has killed more terrorists -- suspected or otherwise -- than any leader in American history by using drones and special forces units. At the behest of his generals, he even authorized a "surge" in Afghanistan that will barely amount to a footnote once the definitive histories of that nonsensical conflict are written.

President Barack Obama doesn't mind getting his hands bloody, yet his foes on Capitol Hill insist he should be more "forceful" like Vladimir Putin, a vain and petulant Russian nationalist who has revived paranoia, fear and loathing for his country at a time when it desperately needs access to international financial markets.

Though Mr. Putin's actions in Ukraine are ultimately self-defeating, he remains a figure of envy to a loud contingent of rightist politicians in this country who are overly impressed by the Cold War machismo that masks Russia's crippling insecurity.

"An Iliad" is about Crimea, Iraq, Afghanistan and all our wars -- hot and cold -- that constitute the narrative of conflict across and sometimes within national borders. It is about the squandered humanity of the soldiers, the agony of their families, the brutality visited upon civilians and the amnesia that afflicts whole nations convinced that the next conflict will be their last.

Mr. Bougere's performance as the Poet, the eternal witness to our conflicts from antiquity through the Peloponnesian wars to the first siege of Constantinople to the Hundred Years War to the Boer wars to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria to Bosnia and Herzegovina and to the killing fields of Rwanda and beyond, is empathetic and heart-wrenching.

The only thing missing from a dramatic recitation of what sounds like a comprehensive catalogue of stupid wars is a reference to the American-inspired war on drugs currently raging across Central and South America. It is an odd omission given the otherwise very perceptive politics in "An Iliad."

Lithe and graceful, Mr. Bougere navigates around piles of construction material that litter the stage. When he isn't jumping on a table, he's climbing the scaffolding or clutching a trash can over his head in a fit of rage that feels, briefly, like he's barely holding it together.

Because his role as the Poet requires that he narrate the drama from the perspective of its major and minor characters, Mr. Bougere has to slip into the skin of Achilles, Hector, Patroclus and others at any given moment. It takes a fine actor to bring as much heart to Andromache as he does to Priam's tears.

Mr. Bougere's performance, which lasts more than 90 minutes without a break, builds to a whirling intensity and range of emotions reminiscent of the young Andre Braugher in early episodes of "Homicide: Life on the Street." Running through April 6, it is truly a tour de force, earning him heartfelt standing ovations every performance.

Because war is a universal experience, the Poet can be played by anyone with sufficient passion, imagination and major acting chops. It is a role that I'd love to see a woman or someone with a prosthetic leg or a blind person make their own.

Surely there are actors with disabilities that could expand the meaning contained in "An Iliad" even more. A returning war veteran's presence on stage would scare away every hint of didacticism in a heartbeat.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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