Jewel Theatre Company’s “An Iliad” updates the Homeric epic and confronts us with timeless truths in a production opening May 20.
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At least for the next few weeks, forget about new stories from up-and-coming playwrights delivered in cutting-edge, high-tech ways at Jewel Theatre Company.
Jewel’s next production is not just going old-school. It’s opting for, to coin a phrase, “ancient-school.”
Opening formally on May 20 (with preview performances May 18 and 19), Jewel’s new show takes on one of the oldest known pieces of literature in the Western world, and delivers it in certainly the oldest form of storytelling. It is “An Iliad,” based on the famous epic poem “The Iliad,” written by the ancient Greek poet Homer nearly 3,000 years ago.
“An Iliad” is an updated and refreshed take on the Homeric epic. More than a decade ago, theater director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare, the latter known for his work in HBO’s “True Blood” and FX’s “American Horror Story,” cleaned up, pared down and streamlined “The Iliad,” to tease out its modern-day relevance and enhance its eternal themes. They created a show in which a single actor, known simply as “The Poet,” tells the story of the Trojan War directly to an audience, mostly from the point of view of foot soldiers Achilles and Hector. (Peterson and O’Hare also collaborated as co-writers of “The Good Book,” which riffs off the Bible.)
At Jewel, Kirsten Brandt directs, and Patty Gallagher takes on the heroic task of playing The Poet. Brandt, a former UC Santa Cruz theater arts lecturer and director, is currently a professor of theater at San Jose State University. Gallagher is a theater professor at UCSC and a longtime fixture of the cast at Santa Cruz Shakespeare (she starred as Susan B. Anthony in 2021’s “The Agitators” at SCS).
Even though the play is rooted in Homer’s ancient Greece, events such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine make it not only relevant but vital in grappling with humanity’s habit of self-destructive warfare.
“Patty Gallagher plays a poet who is compelled to tell the audience the story of the Trojan War,” said Brandt. “There’s a refrain in the play — ‘Do you see? — which is kinda, let’s talk about this ancient war and how it’s not so different from what’s happening right now. And why poets have to keep telling this story and telling it and telling it until, maybe one day, things change.”
Brandt stressed that audiences do not have to know much, if anything, about “The Iliad” to enjoy this production. The Peterson/O’Hare play brings the Homeric epic up to date in overt ways, to contemporize a timeless theme. “There are times it goes right into the Homeric,” said Brandt. “And then there are times when she’s talking about standing in line at the supermarket. She’ll talk about road rage, and then she’ll go back into the Homeric.”
Gallagher has the only speaking role in the play, but she does share the stage at times with a musician who plays The Muse. Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist Jake Sorgen is The Muse who interacts with, and enhances the narration of, Gallagher’s Poet, with musical cues and themes. The stage setting and costuming is designed to evoke the ruins of war, without being too literal.
Gallagher once performed in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” in which she had to perform while literally buried up to her neck. So, she says, “An Iliad” might not be the most demanding thing she’s ever had to do on stage. But it’s close.
“I was joking with my husband, ‘Well, at least this time I’ll get to use my arms and legs,’” Gallagher said, recalling the Beckett experience. “But, I feel in addition to [the volume] of words [in ‘An Iliad], I feel it’s more a psychic burden. It’s both about the content and about the sheer scale of it.”
It is incidental, said Brandt, that both the director and the actor in the new production are women talking about war, traditionally an arena in which men kill other men. “It’s a really interesting conversation to have, maybe after people see it, [to say,] ‘Is it different to have a woman telling us this story?’ Women, historically, have to clean up the war mess, or they’re prizes in a war. The men are slaughtered, destroyed, conquered. But the women endure, and are really huge victims of war,” Brandt said. “The conceit [in the play] is that The Poet has seen it all and has to keep telling the story. And one of her [repeated] lines is, ‘I know these boys.’ And we experience that through the gaze of a narrator who is gendered as a woman. It’s fascinating how it hits the gut.”
Both Brandt and Gallagher face the challenge of telling their story without make it feel like history class. Homer is not something readily embraced in the streaming/reality TV/social media age.
“For me, it’s kind of like approaching Shakespeare,” said Brandt. “And I don’t want to assume my audience has ever seen a Shakespeare play. This might be somebody’s first time seeing theater at this show. So I think the writers have done an amazing job of condensing this epic down to 90 minutes. You have that richness of the language, but also contextualizing it in a contemporary setting. And I think, as this war in Ukraine is going on, it absolutely is resonating with us on a very immediate level.”
Jewel Theater’s “An Iliad,” directed by Kirsten Brandt and starring Patty Gallagher, opens May 20 at the Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center. It plays Thursdays through Sundays, through June 12.