The retelling of one of humanity’s greatest stories was preempted more than a year ago.
“An Iliad,” an adaptation of Homer’s epic poem by actor and playwright Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson, was felled by the encroaching pandemic, as was all theater, and canceled hours before opening night in March last year. But now, the Theatreworks production is back, with a few changes, including a different location and one different cast member.
For Theatreworks artistic director Caitlin Lowans, it was an easy decision to reboot the play, as it speaks to the moment we find ourselves in, and also was easier to produce as a two-person show. The physically distanced production will open Thursday on the lawn outside Ent Center for the Arts. It runs through May 23.
“It takes place at the tail end of the Trojan War, when people are away from their families longer than they could imagine,” Lowans says. “When the play talks about the city under siege and people talk about fear for the safety of their loved ones. The play talks about plague. Those pieces were always present in the play, but mean different things now. I’m grateful to have proof that a beautiful work of art will mean different things at different times, but will always have something to offer us.”
Returning are director Max Shulman, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs theater professor, and Denver actor Erik Sandvold, who plays The Poet, a Homer-like poet who arrives on stage and realizes it’s his duty to retell the story. The Muse, the show’s only other character, will be played by Pam Chaddon, principal cellist for Chamber Orchestra of the Springs, in the reboot. With her electric cello, she sets the tone and urges The Poet along musically, with original music composed by former UCCS professor Anthony Tan. Tan and his wife, Jane Chan, the original Muse, relocated to Canada over the last year.
“The Iliad,” reduced to its bare bones in this retelling, is the story of the Trojan War and how Prince Paris either steals or elopes with Helen (we’re still not entirely sure), the famous beauty who English playwright Christopher Marlowe famously said had “the face that launched a thousand ships,” and is married to the Greek king Menelaus. After Paris absconds with her to Troy, Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, assemble warriors from every corner of Greece. For nine long years they war to get Helen back, until the Greek army finally pretends to give up and leave, only to return hidden inside the famed Trojan horse. The army sacks the city of Troy, retrieves Helen and returns her to Menelaus, where she lives out the rest of her life bearing children.
Homer’s “Iliad,” however, is not the story of the entire war. It drops you in on the action in year nine, leading up to the sacking of Troy. It tells you who’s there and what’s going on, and leads up to the final battle between Achilles and Hector, the prince of Troy, and the latter’s execution. It ends with his burial and the sense that the fate of Troy is sealed, but doesn’t cover what happens next.
The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood captured some of the play’s drama in his 2012 review:“What drove them to fight with such a fury?” the narrator asks as he begins the tale. “Oh ... the gods, of course .... Um ... pride, honor, jealousy ... Aphrodite ... some game or other, an apple, Helen being more beautiful than somebody — it doesn’t matter. The point is, Helen’s been stolen, and the Greeks have to get her back.
For those who worry their enjoyment of “An Iliad” rests heavily on their knowledge of the Trojan War, fear not.
“You can get bogged down in the mythology, but when you’re at the play none of that matters,” Shulman says.
“You will be told a story you will entirely understand. It’s a really good story. It’s exciting and heartbreaking, dangerous, even funny. That’s what theater should be.”