The Noise Within production of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare modern take on Homer’s “The Iliad” (based on the translation by Robert Fagles) is a one-person show with a choice. You can choose who you take the journey with: Deborah Strang or Geoff Elliott. Both interpretations are directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and have their strengths, but the two different performances also point the different eyes of each audience member.
In each case, The Poet is the lone witness who travels wearily with a suitcase in hand. The song of words tells the story of the Trojan War, focusing on the conflict between the Greek King Agamemnon and the demigod Achilles nine years into a war. Like the war itself, the conflict beings over the possession of women.
You know where Greece is, but here’s a map from Archeology.org to show you where Troy (Ilium) was. Located on the northwestern coast of Turkey, Hisarlik (“Place of Fortresses”). If you visit the website, the map is interactive and explains what is known about Troy and its re-discovery.
The Sinister Background of Betrayal
Agamemnon was from the House of Atreus, that traces back to Tantalus, son of Zeus and the nymph Plouto. Tantalus brought a curse upon himself and his house for slaying his son Pelops and feeding him to the gods. The gods recognized the source of their feast and sent Tantalus to Hades where he would be punished by standing in a pool of water from which he could not drink and where above him hung fruit that was always just beyond his reach. (It’s from his name that we get the word “tantalize.”)
Pelops was resurrected by the gods but he also proved treacherous by nature. He sabotaged the chariot of King Oenomaus in order to win a chariot race. The king died as a result and Pelops married the king’s daughter, Hippodamia. This couple had many sons, amongst them were Atreus and Thyestes who were banished for murder (of a half-brother who was son of Pelops and a nymph).
Atreus and Thyestes fell out because Atreus’ wife Aerope had taken Thyestes as a lover. Discovering the affair, Atreus killed and cooked Thyestes’ sons and served them to him. Thyestes was banished because of cannibalism, but for his revenge, he followed the Oracle’s advice to have a son with his daughter Pelopia. Pelopia abandons the infant out of shame and the boy, Aegisthus is raised by a peasant. Thyestes informs the adult Aegisthus that he is both his father and grandfather and that his fate is to kill Atreus.
Atreus had two sons with unfaithful Aerope: Agamemnon and Menelaus. Agamemnon married Clytemnestra and was king of Mycenae. Menelaus was one of many who courted Helen and all her suitors swore the Oath of Tyndareus, that they would go to war should anyone take Helen from her victorious suitor.
Paris, a prince of Troy, is asked to judge who is the fairest between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite with the prize being a golden apple made by the snubbed goddess of discord, Eris. All three goddesses make him promises, but Aphrodite’s offer, of the most beautiful woman in the world, is the one Paris accepted.
Paris visits Sparta where Menelaus is king. Aphrodite gives Paris Helen, suggesting that Helen willing let her husband. Paris returns to Troy with Helen. Menelaus holds all the former suitors to their oath. As the mightiest king, Agamemnon is the leader, but previously Agamemnon angered Artemis by boasting he is a better hunter than the goddess and killing a deer in her sacred grove. She stills the winds and after consulting a prophet, Agamemnon sends for his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, and sacrifices her.
There is fate, but there are always two choices. Atreus did not have to kill his nephews nor feed them to his brother. Troy did not have to take Helen. He certainly must have recognized the risk to himself and his family. Agamemnon could have taken the still winds as a sign that his expedition was ill-fated, but instead he chose to sacrifice his own daughter in order to retrieve his sister-in-law.
AN ILIAD (WITH DEBORAH STRANG)
Both versions of “An Iliad” begin the same. Melody, the house manager greets us takes us in through the doors of the real theater and down the stairs to the stage. She explains that there is no intermission (running time 1 hour and 45 minutes), but we have three hours to watch the play once we start. That means, you can have your bathroom and snack breaks. There’s also an acknowledgement that the actual theater exists on the land that once belonged to Native American tribes (Gabrielino-Tongva, Tataviam and Chumash).
While the film is in color the predominate palette is gray, barely brightened by browns. The background is unabashedly industrial. The Poet enters from behind a lightweight industrial rolling steel door. Deborah Strang is not dressed in a womanly fashion. Her wardrobe seems ragged and well-worn, meant to disguise her gender rather than to express it. She wears a brownish grey long coat, long scarf and loose vest. She carries a hard suitcase in one hand and a candle protected by glass in another. Her long hair escape the hat she wars, but nothing suggests that she has paid much attention to her hair or her general appearance.
In “An Iliad,” which begins in a foreign language (Greek thanks to Greek consultant Nike Doukas), but transitions quickly English, while The Poet recalls travels to places of legend such as Mycenae where she/he was able to sing the song for a whole year and Gaul where the people had “a real taste” for tales of battle and were themselves hard to control, there’s also mention made of more modern places (Chicago) and local (Pasadena and Antelope Valley). As the length of time passes, not as many people are eager to sit and listen to this tale, but both Strang and Elliott expresses a nostalgia for those historic times. In both cases, The Poet isn’t entirely alone. Cellist Karen Hall composed and plays a minimalist soundtrack.
This is a play, but director Rodriguez-Elliott and director of photography Andressa Cordeiro don’t give us a stagnant still camera. There is some low-key movement, but not as much as some filmed performances.
“The Iliad” focuses on the conflict between Achilles and Agememnon and the battle between Hector, crown prince of Troy, son of Priam and brother of Paris, and Achilles. The war has become a near-decade long siege. Back at home, fathers have died without seeing their sons, sons and daughters have grown up without knowing their fathers and wives have mysteriously given birth to children in their husbands’ absence. Outside the gates of Troy, there is a black plague affecting the Greek troops, caused by Agememnon’s refusal to release Chryseis, the daughter of Chyses, the Trojan priest to Apollo. Chyses offers great treasures in return, but Agememnon refuses to give what he considers his bounty of a teenage girl. Chyses prays to Apollo and Apollo sends a plague.
Achilles, the leader of the Myrmidon, challenges Agememnon and his resistance to releasing Chryseis. Achilles, too, had a choice. He could have lived a long life without glory, but he chose a short life with a glorious end. He knows that he will not return home to his mother, he will not raise a family although myths give him offspring. He will die young and be immortalized because of Troy.
Homer establishes the coldness and grasping greed of Agememnon. He is willing to allow men to die and cripple the chance to retrieve Helen so that he might keep Chryseis. He had already sacrifice his own daughter nearly a decade earlier and doesn’t feel the tender appeal of one father to another. When challenged by Achilles, he takes a selfish and divisive revenge: Instead of claiming the wealth offered by Chryses, he takes the captured slave owned by Achilles’ Briseis. She was once the daughter of a king and married, but the Trojan War wasn’t just against Troy. Achilles led the attack on Lyrnessus, her brothers and parents were killed. She survived and was awarded to Achilles as property.
When Agememnon takes custody of Briseis, Achilles withdraws and refuses to fight. The Greeks, having suffered the plague, now suffer humiliating losses without their greatest warrior. Achilles’ best friend, Patroclus wears Achilles’ armor to frighten the Trojans.
The real tragedy is between the noble Hector and the enraged Achilles who only returns to battle after his best friend Patroclus dies. Both Hector and Achilles are portrayed as noble men and brave warriors. When Paris makes an appearance, it is brief. He’s not the hero nor the villain. Homer portrays him as cowardly and even his choice of weaponry, bow and arrow, make him less than heroic. Achilles has been killed by Paris, but Paris dies before the war ends. The ownership of Achilles’ armor sets Odysseus against Ajax and after losing, Ajax has committed suicide.
As a woman, when one hears Strang talk about the fall of Briseis into slavery and how she becomes the point of a quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, one can’t help but wonder about the women and feel that The Poet feels something more even as the narrative doesn’t really tell us much about Briseis or her fate. One wonders is this poet had herself been a piece of property, privy to the private conversations and subjected to the whims of men as the spoils of war.
AN ILIAD (WITH GEOFF ELLIOTT)
Elliott is similarly dressed, but his voice carries less of a strained sorrow than Strang, but that might be my own gender bias. Dressed similarly, he could be a modern-day gentleman among the homeless ranks, presenting himself as well as possible, but not much above penniless. Being a poet never paid well.
When Elliott is The Poet, one imagines that he was would have been happy chumming along with either side and remembers the time before the war. If he had the choice, he might have just has happily traded women like property and discarded them when they had served their purpose.
When each intones, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time,” one knows that the epic of Troy will not be forgotten. Men still seem to glory in war, even as warfare has become less about personal confrontation and more about technology and weapons of mass destruction. Hector was a great hero and “a breaker of horses,” but war breaks down families.
Both versions are well-worth watching, evoking both the times we live in when warriors got eagerly to war for glory and country and perhaps for to rape and pillage, and the brutal past from which our civilization emerged.
“An Iliad” continues to stream at A Noise Within until May 16. Tickets are $25 for individuals and $40 for a family. One ticket per device. That access link is provided by TheaterMania Stream and is emailed 5 minutes before the performance starts. Online sales closes 2 hours before the stream begins. All stream times are PST. Closed captions are available. For more information, visit A Noise Within.
Homer’s “Iliad” and this “An Iliad” foreshadows what will happen after the fall of Troy and in case you’re wondering what happened to the major players, here’s what happened and it wasn’t pretty.
Odysseus is the hero of Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” which recounts the decade Odysseus spends attempting to return to Ithaca. At home, his faithful wife Penelope and his son, Telemachus, who grew up without a father, wait for his return although because others assume him dead, now many warriors and kings pay court to Penelope in hopes of gaining the kingdom Ithaca by marriage.
“An Iliad” doesn’t go into the machinations behind the fall of Troy–the treachery of the Greeks and the Trojan Horse. The fate of Briseus is unimportant. The wives of the great princes of Troy are now war prizes and slaves, including Hector’s wife, Andromache. Their son, Astyanax, is quickly killed before she is assigned to Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles.
Menelaus retrieves Helen, but she doesn’t provide him with a male heir. Instead, he has sons by his slaves.
Agamemnon will return home, claiming Cassandra, the daughter of Priam, as one of his war prizes. His wife, Clytemnestra, has not forgiven her husband for killing their daughter, Iphigenia. She has taken a lover, Aegisthus, a son of Thyestes. Thyestes is the brother of Atreus. Atreus, the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, was killed by his nephew (and cousin) Aegisthus. Aegisthus kills his cousin Agamemnon and rules until his stepson Orestes returns and kills Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.
Only Odysseus has a happy ending, but the rest is all Greek tragedy.
Full disclosure: I am a Trojan (graduate of USC), but also a Bruin.