Less is More in Cleveland Play House's Powerful Production of 'An Iliad'

Less is More in Cleveland Play House's Powerful Production of 'An Iliad'
Photo by Roger Mastroianni

An Iliad

Through Feb. 10 at the Cleveland Play House Outcalt Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave.

216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com

The roster of heroes of our past, both historical and fictional, are dominated by men, and so too are the tellers of those stories.

They are the warriors, the knights, the soldiers, the slayers of dragons, the harbingers of peace and honor. Men triumph across our bedtime stories, the movie screens and throughout the pages of history books, and as storytellers, they have dominated for centuries.

An Iliad, the play based on Homer's epic poem about the Trojan War, is no exception. But Cleveland Play House's production certainly is. By casting an incredibly talented woman in a role written for a man, CPH presents a unique perspective to an age-old story, making an already thought-provoking play doubly memorable.

Written by Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson, An Iliad opened off-Broadway in 2012. Drawing from Robert Fagles' translations of the ancient Greek piece, the story features a pivotal moment of the 10-year-long siege of the city of Troy by the Greeks.

An Iliad tells the tale of Achilles, a demi-god seeking to siege the gilded city for the Greeks, and Hector, an honorable family man and Troy's staunch defender.

Directors Tara Flanagan and Andrew Carlson's production brings to life thousands of ships off the shore of Troy, effectively translating the bloody battles that result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men and illustrates the emotional hardships derived from the terrors of war.

And they do so with the talents of a single actress aided by a cellist.

This actress, billed as the Poet, is co-director Tara Flanagan. She strides into the Outcalt Theatre, weathered traveling bag in hand and an aviator's cap upon her head. Addressing the audience sitting on three sides of her, she confides that she has been singing this story of the Trojan War across the ages.

The Poet is conversational, not only summarizing Homer's story, but also making it accessible by relating the ancient saga to today. For example, she compares a killing rage with being cut-off in traffic. When she isn't in direct conversation with the audience, she will embody the main characters of the story, employing differing accents and postures to convey the arrogance of King Agamemnon or the eagerness of Achilles' young friend, Patrocius.

Flanagan is phenomenal. She crafts illustrations of war using little more than her words, sand she pours upon the ground and a ladder. Designer Ian Stillman's simple set, consisting of a gray brick wall, and almost stagnant lighting by Michael Boll, puts emphasis on the powers of the storyteller to convey imagery.

And what a powerful storyteller she is. Despite the taxing nature of retelling an ancient Greek epic, Flanagan is very entertaining. However, the 100-minute show isn't a brainless narrative audiences can coast through — it requires focus and diligence on the part of the observer — but the reward of experiencing one of the most authentic forms of storytelling is well worth the effort.

The Poet spreads the tale with the aid of the Greek gods who send her muses to complement her story with music.

The Muse sent to CPH's production is the wonderful Eva Rose Scholz-Carlson, a cellist who composed an accompaniment for An Iliad and has performed it in multiple other productions across the country.

Scholz-Carlson uses her cello in beautiful ways, beating her hand rhythmically against it as percussion, scraping her bow across the strings to emit screeching to represent screams and plucking at various cords to create a tantalizing sort of battle-march.

But the Muse isn't only providing music to supplement the story, she is keeping a watchful, often concerned, eye traced on the Poet. For you see, as entertaining as it is, this story has taken its toll. Flanagan's Poet is tired. She is weary of telling the tale of the Greeks and Troy, just as tired as the soldiers in her story were of fighting.

To her, this isn't just a story of war. Those hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died? They are more than a number. Each one was an individual, with a name, a life and a family. She knew them and she watched them die.

Flanagan's Poet seems to especially relate to the women —whether it be the wives or mothers — who were left to wait inside the city walls, praying that their sons, fathers, brothers or husbands would survive that day's battle.

And this is where the casting of a woman as the Poet adds an interesting perspective to the narrative.

Prior men in the role have acted out the battle scenes with such vehemence, bloodlust and a sense of PTSD that it appears they were in the battle themselves. Flanagan mimes the battles with more of a frenzied choreography, not as if she was a warrior herself, but an omnipresent spectator—much like the many women who felt powerless as they were forced to watch the men in their lives die.

Flanagan expresses her anguish over these casualties with staggering authenticity, conveying the sense that she wished she could have stopped the senseless killing, or could have defended her friends herself.

Flanagan may be portraying this epic battle of men, but she is also effectively shedding a much-needed light on the less represented but just as important vantage point of the women.

And these horrors of war have withstood the test of time, as the Poet expresses when she (very impressively) lists what seems like almost every major war throughout history. And in turn, perhaps we can relate to a centuries old story after-all.

Men may be the heroes of An Iliad, and so many stories that follow, but in this show, the two powerful women storytellers make this production one for the ages.

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