Produced by: San Jose Stage Company
Featuring: Jackson Davis
Directed by: Kenneth Kelleher
When: April 9 through May 4, 2014
Where: The Stage, 490 South First Street, San Jose, California
Tickets:$25-$50 (discounts available). Call 408-283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org.
against war in 'An Iliad'
of Homer's epic tale at San Jose Stage Company
Hours later, I am still reeling from having seen Jackson Davis' powerful, overwhelming performance as The Poet in "An Iliad" at San Jose Stage Company.
The brilliant script, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, is a boiled-down and modernized adaptation of Homer's epic poem, which was literature's first real condemnation of war.
The audience enters the auditorium to find what might be an alley in any city. There are piles of shipping pallets, a couple of ladders, and dozens of bits of discarded junk.
Audience members straggle in late. Even after the lights go down, they are still tittering away and playing with their cellphones. Then:
The Poet has entered, by pushing over a pallet that had been blocking a hole in an alley fence.
Wow, does that get our attention.
The Poet begins to recite, in Greek. Then he switches to English: "Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time."
And he launches into telling the story of the Trojan War, and every war since.
We've all seen angry crazy people in the street, ranting and shouting, and that is Davis in this performance. Shaggy haired, bearded, wearing a long coat over a henley shirt, he tells his tale with street-crazy passion, waving his arms, bugging out his eyes, stomping around the stage.
If we saw him in the street, we would call the police: Please come help this man.
Instead, he is on a huge stage, making use of every inch of it, and every prop, to help us understand the insanity of war. "How do you know when you've won?" he asks. He struggles to tell his tale, begging his muses to help him. He stutters, he repeats a word or a phrase till the line comes back to him, then challenges the audience with it, staring at everyone with pleading, heart-broken eyes: Please, please! Hearken to this tale!
The Poet has told this story again and again. For the Trojan War, for every war since. He personalizes the dead for us: Here he is, on a battlefield about a hundred years ago; here is the body of Matt; here is the body of Stephen, here is the body ... on and on, men from towns all over America, and all over the world, to help us feel the truth of this great poem of war, in all its tragedy and heroics.
"An Iliad" is fairly familiar to us all, even those who haven't read the original. We've all heard of Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, and the key heroes of Achilles, Hector and Paris. Maybe you saw the 2004 movie "Troy," with Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom.
In this production, Davis plays all those guys except, I think, Paris, whom he dismisses as a lazy bum, getting one of several laughs and all the key women, including Helen. When Davis is Helen, laying on a bed of pallets, wiggling her hips to try to seduce Hector, it's both effective and hilarious.
In ancient times, scholars have guessed, poets would wander from town to town and recite the "Iliad" for the mostly illiterate townspeople. It would take days, often.
Here, Peterson and O'Hare have trimmed the story to fit in 90 minutes or so. Some explanation of the Trojan War and the role of the gods, and who's who, then a focus on the story of Achilles and Hector. No intermission, which makes artistic sense: Once this powerful performance envelopes us, there should be no escape until the story has been told.
A broom handle becomes a lance. An old, wrinkled bit of plastic tarp becomes a beach, as the hundreds of Greek ships with thousands of men approach Troy. A chunk of pipe becomes a sword. An old safety helmet, worn backward with the shield raised, becomes a king's battle helmet. The Poet's overcoat becomes a cape, a blanket and wrapped up and lovingly cradled in the arms of The Poet a baby.
And the concrete floor becomes the place where The Poet tries to add up all the men coming to battle, all the bodies. Then it becomes the place where he kneels, trying to remember all the names of all the wars about which he has had to sing, over thousands of years.
He collapses in tears, and who can blame him?
At the very end, after all the laughs, after all the amazing action and drama and pathos and beauty, after the powerful scream of horror against war, The Poet looks to the audience and says, "You see?"
"An Iliad" was directed by Kenneth Kelleher, who is artistic director of Pacific Repertory Theatre in Carmel. Davis first performed "An Iliad," with Kellerher directing, on three weeks notice, at Pac Rep's Circle Theatre. Kellerher and Davis make for a great team with this show. Lighting was Michael Palumbo and was effective and helpful.
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org