“Rage–Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,” begins Robert Fagles’s 1990 translation of Homer’s The Iliad. A rage-goddess indeed might be the appropriate muse for our unsettled times; goddess knows quite a few women I know are looking at the electoral options facing them this cycle with anger and sorrow and probably more than a little bit of desire for some kind of divine retribution (though not necessarily of the blood-and-guts variety).
But as Court Theatre’s one-man version of the Homeric epic, An Iliad, mournfully demonstrates, the story told by the Poet (Timothy Edward Kane, returning for the third time to the role with Court) both transcends the Trojan War narrative confines of Homer’s original and the specific calamitous circumstances of our own time. Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation (based on the Fagles translation), deftly weaves together the ancient tale with anachronistic punch: the everyday soldiers pressed into combat in the war between the Trojans and the Greeks could be, as Kane’s Poet notes, from Ohio or Nebraska.
And though this is a story rife with twists dictated by the caprices of ancient gods, the Poet reminds us “Gods never die. They change. They burrow inside us. They become us, they become our impulses.” Are the bloody actions of Achilles and Hector noble or nasty? Are they killing in the name of patriotism or personal vendetta? Hard to tell the difference once the fog of war covers the land.
I saw the 2013 production of this show at Court, where the set felt like an ancient subterranean bathhouse-bomb shelter, with Kane’s vagabond Poet delivering his notes from underground. This time, Court has partnered with their Hyde Park neighbor, the Oriental Institute, and artistic director Charles Newell’s staging takes us through several rooms filled with artifacts–including a fragment of part of The Iliad written down in the first century AD.
Kane’s fever-bright intensity, even in Rachel Anne Healy’s hobo suit, is reflected in the harsh ghost lights–exposed bulbs encased in metal cages on top of beat-up stands, supplemented by spotlights shining up from the floor around the playing areas. (Keith Parham’s lighting creates its own cunning parallel play of shadows to accompany Kane’s corporeal presence.) We begin in front of the massive winged bull sculpture from the throne room of Assyrian King Sargon II. Designed (as are so many artifacts in the Oriental’s collection) as a protective figure, we see it here as both ominous and impotent. It’s massive, impressive–and completely removed from its original purpose, far from its homeland.
That’s Kane’s Poet too, who tells us that he sang this tale differently in Babylon, as if offering a preemptive apology for the direct (though still evocative) vernacular he now uses. Has the constant and never-ending human need for dominance and score settling removed every vestige of high-flown poetry from our chronicles of war? Or is trying to make poetry out of such pain and pointless loss its own form of folly and sacrilege? These questions come up over and over as we watch Kane in action.
The last section of the show takes place in a small room with wooden packing boxes marked FRAGILE (artfully arranged by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal). Kane jumps from box to floor and back again, and delivers the section most people who’ve seen it probably remember best from this show: a litany of all the recorded wars humans have fought from Homer’s time to our own. (The last time I saw this, it ended with Syria. Now it’s Ukraine. Give it a few months and it will be something else.)
And though I’m not sure this was the central intent, those boxes and the statues and artifacts around us–horses, bulls, gods, fertility amulets, pots and vessels used for both everyday life and holy ritual, the mundane and the sacred–remind us that we are in a place built in part on imperial imperatives. We in the west continue to display other people’s stories and works of art in our museums. Do we provide safe harbor? Or are we quietly saying that the best we can do is preserve these vestiges, and the people are, as always, left on their own? You can ask the goddess for an answer, but the rage of the times makes it hard to hear. v