Theater Review: 'An Iliad,' Weston Playhouse | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'An Iliad,' Weston Playhouse

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David Bonanno - COURTESY OF HUBERT SCHRIEBL
  • Courtesy Of Hubert Schriebl
  • David Bonanno

On foot and in full armor, one great warrior pursues another around the city's walls. The chase takes place in the viewer's imagination while a storyteller describes the pursuer as never quite closing the distance to the tireless fleeing man. The story is from Homer's Iliad, but it becomes modern and vivid in the Weston Playhouse production of the 2013 play An Iliad.

The play is not simply a tidy compression of an old epic poem into contemporary speech. The storyteller, called the Poet, speaks directly, casually, humorously and expressively to the audience. The script looks at heroes and the horror of war with the perspective of centuries of battle. In a virtuoso performance as the Poet, David Bonanno pulls the audience into an experience of humanity's unending use of violence.

The Poet enters in a dusty raincoat, sagging fedora and old shirt. His pants, torn at both knees, are held up with a rope belt. He sinks to the rubble-strewn ground and sifts a handful of dust through his fingers. Then he sings, in Greek, the first lines of his tale with beauty and incantatory power. When he rises and proposes to tell us a great story, the Poet explains, "Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time."

His story is war. The events of the Iliad exemplify war and its mythic permanence in human affairs, down to the pettiness and vainglory that motivate men and the interference of equally petty gods. Playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare reanimate, with potent language, the cause and the outcome of the battle between Hector and Achilles. Anyone who recalls the tedium of scraping out Homer's plot points in high school will be awakened by the raw energy of desperate conflict here.

The Poet carries his song in memory but can no longer retrieve each name and detail. Retaining this story and telling it forever is his burden to bear. Yet he continues, speaking informally, even intimately, like a friend connecting with each listener.

The script's poetry lies in the precision of the language, not in grand or flowery images. Multiple characters are described and personified, their most human traits eclipsing any mythic ones. The storytelling wrenches the listener down to earth: A soldier in a nine-year war who leaves an infant behind will return to meet a 10-year-old, maybe find his wife's grown fat.

The Poet lets us experience humor and sorrow as he conjures in gorgeous description everything from a spear piercing a jaw to the psychotic stubbornness of men who can't risk humiliation.

War's proximity to death nearly demands that its stories be filled with a meaning that can be applied to life. The battle between the Trojan hero Hector and the Greek warrior Achilles is a colossal struggle, with each combatant driven to prevail and worthy of winning. And that's the crucial part — there is no villain, just two heroes with certain limitations and immense courage. For either of them to die teaches us nothing, except that war destroys the best in humanity even as it's predicated on the worst.

The play is a cunning contradiction. It makes a tale of war and warriors stirring to a modern audience, revealing character and describing action with riveting intensity. And it places — ceaselessly — the horror of war at the center of the story.

Eight young performers act as a chorus, appearing onstage or moving within the audience. Occasionally they are still, silent abstractions of the characters, but their principal effect is watching the Poet with us. Moving with the clarity of dancers, Nadia Belaouchi, Emma Diner, Sage Jepson, Daelynn Jorif, Gracee Street, Alexander Tan, Cole Thompson and Timmy Thompson add solemnity to the Poet's words, then sing when no words are adequate.

Bonanno is magnificent in the role of a lifetime. A monologue inherently tests an actor's stamina, range and vocal ability. Some actors are tempted to call attention to the tour de force they're unleashing. Not Bonanno, whose performance is entirely in service to the role and the play's ideas. He holds the audience effortlessly by concentrating purely on the emotion of the text.

Bonanno immerses himself in the Poet's experience. He gives the audience freedom to laugh and reasons to ache, all without visible artifice. In a standout moment, Bonanno captures the rage that makes killing possible, a transformation that is as thrilling and cathartic as theater gets. His stunning performance never says, "Look at me." It extends an offer: "Feel with me."

Director Meredith McDonough staged the show with understated movement, making every gesture count and integrating the chorus and music with the action. It's impossible to tell who contributed what in this partnership between actor and director, but it's clear that McDonough gave Bonanno the conditions he needed to excel.

Composer Jenny Giering created moving music, from dirge-like background tones to arresting songs. Scenic designer Lex Liang used sandbags, wood pallets and cast-off junk to convey timeless ruin and loss. To comply with Actors' Equity Association pandemic safety rules, the show is staged in a tent. The natural light of early evening outshone Mark Barton's ineffective lighting design, built from ground-level construction work lights and limited theatrical instruments.

Music director Yan Li plays piano with broad, dynamic effects throughout the show, and he and Bonanno maintain an improvisational connection, like jazz musicians. The actors wear microphones, and the ambient noise of a summer night never interferes. (Ask for a seat in the center, because those on the sides offer poor sight lines and the dazzle of low lights aimed across the stage.)

Weston took a risk welcoming back audiences with an intense one-man show. But this demonstration of the formidable power of performance to transport listeners with words alone, and to embed a story in their hearts, is exactly why audiences will return. An Iliad is not to be missed.

The original print version of this article was headlined "War Story"

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