An Illiadby Homer, adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, translated by Robert Fagles. Directed by Sheila Siragusa. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Jeannine Haas as The Poet; photo: provided
Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY
If the spirit moves you so --"
At a point in the play An Illiad, nearly three quarters of the way through when The Poet recounts the lengthy history of human wars around the globe, the air in the theater grows stale and still, the musical accompaniment grows quiet and the audience becomes a group of mounds, unmoving and otherworldly eerie. The actor, Jeannine Haas, playing The Poet pauses and lists and orates this list from the beginning of recorded time right up to the present. Each announcement has a ring to it and the figure, the embodiment of Homer, the ancient poet who penned the work on which this play is based, becomes both ethereal and realistic at the same time. It is a chilling point. It is what the play is all about. This retelling of the Trojan War by a poet who may have lived within a hundred years of those events is classical theater with a political twang.
This is the second time in two years I have seen this play. Both productions - worlds apart in staging, concept and theatres - have been directed by the same person, Sheila Siragusa. This is, reportedly, the first time that The Poet has been played by a woman. That is not what makes the current production at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York so different from the Chester Theatre Company production in 2013. It seems, rather, that Siragusa has reconsidered the play and made it more confrontational, more inevitable a performance than in its previous incarnation. Here The Poet insists that telling the story of this war again is repugnant and yet it must be told. Scholars insist that Homer lived later in the BCE and that he merely wrote down what had been an oral tradition for hundreds of years. In the case of The Poet in the play that seems to be what we're getting, that ancient oral tradition of storytelling transformed into a thing of the present.
There is not much actual poetry in this play. The litany of war is among the most poetic sequences and in Haas's faultering voicing of it takes on the resonance of an aria by Giuseppe Verdi. It has a rhythm and a musicality and you can forget that this is a list song of all the human atrocities of centuries; except that the simplicity of the lyric, the list itself, intrudes itself upon the "listing" and at its conclusion the audience is left drained and exhausted, as is the storyteller.
Haas is wonderful in the role. She has no specific gender and no particular age. She is not from the present but, as the character, knows about it. She is neither in control of the story, nor unable to avoid its telling. She is part seer, part mesmerizer. She is weary of the tale, yet wed to it without the possibility of reprieve. Her Poet is a person with a deliberately awkward mission who allows that mission to overcome any reluctance or boredom to preach a lesson without preaching. The complexity of the part and the ways in which Haas uses those infinite variations makes this a most extraordinary performance. I thought the previous interpretation could not be bettered but I was wrong.
John Sheldon, accompanying Haas throughout the play, has composed a unique and amazing score, melodic in a 20th century manner yet acoustically linked to time way past. While there are no set or costume designers credited in the program the use of space to create a region of 19th century devastation enhance with a fascinating manner of their own. Calvin Herzig-Anderson has created a lighting design for the play which focuses attention and creates mood support for the script.
Who knows whether or not Sheila Siragusa will attempt this play again. There is a limited run here of a production that brings great credit to her creative and interpretive skills. Those are enhanced by Jeannine Haas and John Sheldon and the 100 minute, one-act performance can only be categorized as more worthwhile than one might imagine.
An Illiadruns for one more weekend, through May 17 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street, Cambridge, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-677-2495 or go on line to www.hubbardhall.org.