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Denis O'Hare's Odyssey With "An Iliad"

Date: Feb 24, 2012


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You could argue that any performance is a translation---a transference of words on a page to the living dimensions of the stage---but the thought's especially tantalizing in An Iliad. Both the script and the cast remind us there's no "definitive" version of a story: There are only new interpretations to capture the imagination.

 Script first: Now in previews at New York Theatre Workshop, the one-man show is an adaptation of Robert Fagles' translation of Homer's Iliad. Right away, then, this ancient tale of the Trojan War is covered in fingerprints, each adding a new perspective to the story. 

And the stew gets richer in the Workshop's production. An Iliad is co-written by director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O'Hare (pictured above, right, with Stephen Spinella.) In their version, a storyteller comes on stage and spills out portions of the poem. Every few minutes, though, he interrupts himself, telling us what it was like to see Greek warriors up close or mourning the wars he's had to witness. We hear about Achilles, Hector, and the gods, but we also learn about the man who describes them.

"Lisa and I talked a lot about who he is and what he is, and it's a slippery thing," says O'Hare (True Blood, American Horror Story, Broadway's Take Me Out.) "One of the best things we came up with was he's a 'living book' sitting on the shelf, and either he's being pulled down off the shelf by willing participants or he's willing himself off the shelf to fall open in a time when the culture needs him." In other words, the storyteller is fated to recount the war. His fate causes palpable grief, like when he remembers the dead, but also ferocious beauty. Paradoxically, an eternity of describing carnage has produced the beautiful language of The Iliad.

There's a similar tension in O'Hare and Peterson's perspectives on the production. O'Hare says that for him, the show's thesis is "war is a waste, always," but he says that "Lisa's thesis was more about how violence is inherent to our natures and we'll never escape it."

Ultimately, both points of view are in the show, and they informed which sections of the poem were put on stage. "We have someone like Achilles who is born to kill, that's his mission," O'Hare says. "But in Achilles' character, he has the ability to say to his mother, 'If only Strife would die from the lives of gods and men.' This is a warrior who says, 'If only we didn't do this.'"

The acting in the production is just as layered. Though this is An Iliad's fifth production, it's the first starring O'Hare. He's seen several actors perform the role, though, including Stephen Spinella, who starred in the McCarter's production in 2010 and is alternating performances with O'Hare at New York Theatre Workshop. 

As a performer, then, O'Hare is not only translating his own writing, but also the work of other actors who have played the storyteller. The mind reels.

O'Hare says he's happy to be fifth in line. "I don't mind saying that I steal from the best, so I've definitely borrowed from all my fellow actors," he says. "When I watched, they solved problems for me sometimes. I would say, 'Oh, that's a really good way to do that.'"

The bigger hurdle has been balancing his role as a writer and a performer. "It's really difficult for Lisa to be the director and co-author, and it's really difficult for me to be the actor and co-author," he explains. "At any given point, you're really tempted to solve a problem dramaturgically, and the problem may be directorial. Or it may be acting. Or it may be lighting, or it may be music. But as writers, we sort of go, 'Um… let's cut that line.' Or, 'Um, hey. Last night you made a mistake and said the word 'tonight' at the end of that line. Let's throw that in.' We'll throw things in, and Lisa will go, 'You know what? That was wrong. We gave into our base impulses.'"

Still, performing the show has reconnected O'Hare to the passion of the story and the spontaneous energy of storytelling. The text and blocking may not change, but his interpretation of a moment can alter every night. "I tend to be fairly different from performance to performance, "he says. "The ending on Saturday [might be] fairly different than it was on Sunday. On any given day, I'll just go for it."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photo of Stephen Spinella (left) and Denis O'Hare by Joan Marcus