Linda Libby, Gunnar Biggs in An Iliad
Last call: Theater in January and February usually begins in slow motion. Not this season. One show must close this Sunday. Two have been reprieved.
An Iliad at New Village Arts. Homer’s epic poem in 95 minutes? Sounds like Iliad Lite. Not so.
They say Homer was a blind poet, late eighth, early seventh century BCE. They say he was led from town to town where he recited his epic poems, The Iliad, about the ten-year Trojan War, and The Odyssey, about Odysseus’s long return home to Ithaca.
Since The Iliad is 15,693 lines long, it must have taken Homer several days to recite its 24 books in full. Many envision an ancient old man in a royal palace, standing before a roaring fire, singing the “wrath of Achilles” to a captive audience in a voice so resonant the pillars tremble. No one knows. But the image of a solitary figure telling the heroic, monstrous, indelible story’s a tradition that won’t go away.
Lisa Peterson was associate director at the La Jolla Playhouse for three years. In 2012, she and Dennis O’Hare shaped that image into a modern re-telling. But unlike a stationary Homer, their narrator, called The Poet, is ever on the move, climbing stairs, pacing restlessly, ducking for cover, heaving invisible spears, struck by a mortal wound, praying over a funeral pyre.
Peterson and O’Hare’s Poet is ageless and thus can use contemporary references to make points. These updates — citing road rage as an example of a warrior’s fury, for example, or saying that the Greeks could have come from Nebraska or Florida — modernize the ancient tale and literally bring it home.
At New Village Arts, backed by Gunnar Biggs on string bass, Linda Libby does the rest as the Poet. In a fierce, tender physical performance, Libby honors the great poem, about which Simone Weil wrote (in The Iliad, or the Poem of Force): “Nothing precious is scorned…everyone’s unhappiness is laid bare without dissimulation or disdain; no man is above or below the condition to all men; whatever is destroyed is regretted.”
Playing through February 26
Extended runs are a sign of theatrical health, and a reprieve, the chance for more life. It’s early in the year and already three shows have been extended. Cygnet’s Bad Jews added several performances before it closed.
Due to popular demand, Moxie Theatre added an extra week to its excellent Blue Door and now closes March 5. The La Jolla Playhouse’s Freaky Friday has had two extensions and will close March 19.