An Iliad, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center

I've never read The Iliad. Or rather, I tried to several times, but had to go shamefacedly to my big sister the classical philosopher who writes books about Plato and confess I had failed again. I blame the catalog of ships!, I would say. Who on earth can make it through that utter slog?, I questioned, with the temerity of the truly indolent.

Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography
Thankfully, Conor Bagley's production of An Iliad, playing a very short run at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, is here in DC for a retelling that bears both wit and war wounds.  The script, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare (and based on the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad) savvily plays with the familiar and unfamiliar parts of the epic, focusing on the relatable and regrettable humanity on display in the Trojan war.  If I as a reader was never able to see the point of the catalog of ships the Greeks sent to Troy, the Poet (an incredible turn by actor Iason Togias) shifts our perspective in the first of many similar moments, asking the audience to imagine that the Greek ships  carry representatives of American cities and states, far from home to fight an endless war. They aren't just ships, they're filled with human lives the vast, vast majority of which will be lost before they ever return home.

As it turns out, when you take Homer's narrative of rage and war and ask the audience to see past familiar narrative beats into a story rife with trauma and its effects on human lives, I'm all in. When Togias' Poet decides to tell his story to the audience each night, he does so with a weariness in his core that informs even his most physical and commanding moments; that this story has remained just under our skin as a people is not exactly a compliment, and after a while, that wears down the soul.  Togias' performance is extraordinary, embodying characters from Achilles to Andromache while maintaining the Poet's own connection with the audience at all times with tenderness, honesty, and humor.

Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography

Joining Togias onstage is Matt Chilton, providing musical accompaniment and his own actively engaged presence throughout the performance.  I admit to a bias against live musical accompaniment to most straight plays, but I've never seen one as well-matched as Chilton's with Togias' performance, with sustained dissonance and snatches of beauty amidst the chaos of the unending battles that ebbs and flows with the story.

There are certain stories that we impulsively keep telling across the centuries, and every time, we do so through the eyes of our own time.  Peterson and O'Hare started crafting theirs in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq, and Bagley's production comes to DC amid the violence that has torn apart lives under the current administration. It's a heart-wrenching production that tells a war story from the ancient trenches and asks us to look closely at why we keep finding ourselves returning to rage and war in both the stories we share and the actions we choose to take. There are only a handful of performances remaining before it closes on June 9, but I'd urge you to make the time to see one.


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