The brilliant central device behind Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson's radical new dramatization of the 15,693-line, 24-book Homeric poem known as "The Iliad," here dubbed "An Iliad," is thus: The story is told at great cost to the teller.
The Poet — Homer, we presume — who shows up all by himself at the Court Theatre, purloining and punishing the body of the remarkable Chicago actor Timothy Edward Kane, is a weary, lonely, Sisyphean man. He has been recounting the tale of the Trojan War across countless centuries. He tells us that, by now, he doesn't even remember some of the finer points of his own work.
But he has come to understand that it's no use rattling off the names of obscure ancient towns if you want to get your point across at a huge remove of time and place. So, instead, he tells his audience to imagine the scores of Greek ships crewed with teenagers not from Greek city-states, but from Ohio, Evanston, even the Florida Panhandle "with its snake charmers and evangelists" (a little meta-nod, perhaps, to O'Hare's current professional actorly interest in TV vampires and assorted other American horrors).
The Poet tries to get us to think about what it would be like if we were away at battle for nine years. And, in an especially clever flight of metaphorical creativity, he suggests that the reason that the battle between Greece and Troy raged for that time was akin to the reason we're reluctant to switch to a shorter supermarket line if our investment in the line in which we stand already is great. The intended takeaway is that all involved with the Trojan War came to see that the war was not worth the cost, but neither side was willing to come home empty-handed. Too humiliating.
And thus this Poet makes very clear that while he is talking about one specific, 10-year conflict, the reason for such fights does not change with the passing years. "Helen's been stolen," he says, setting up his big tale. "And the Greeks have to get her back. There's always something, isn't there?"
Indeed there is always something. Usually some kind of personal affront. And just in case you still don't get that point, Kane's Poet rattles off a bravura list of pretty much every major war in the world from Troy to Afghanistan (Crimean, Mexican War of Independence, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera). In that moment — by far the most remarkable of a consistently fascinating evening — Kane's lips start to move as if he were in the middle of an exorcism.
Overall this is, for sure, one of the most remarkable performances of the theatrical year. There's nothing pretentious about what Kane does (under the direction of Charles Newell), nor any sense of rhetorical pomposity. Crucially, it just feels like Kane — whose ravaged physical appearance is very different from his usual all-American charm — is spilling out the contents of his mind and heart, in service of some higher duty. Acting work at this level is often marked by a palpable unselfishness, a willingness to subjugate self to character and material, and that's exactly how it feels here. It is a masterpiece of acting — the clear high point of Kane's career to date — that should not be missed.
The written piece is stronger when it evokes the agonies of the conscience-afflicted storyteller than when it is recounting the actual Homeric content. You could argue that Homer takes a neutral stance on war — Craig Wright's adaptation at A Red Orchid Theatre, which used a cast of girls, came closer to reflecting the simultaneous Homeric admiration for such battlefield A-listers as Hector and Achilles even as he did not run from the havoc they cause. Peterson and O'Hare don't want to glorify any of that warrior stuff, which is a principled position to take but one that fights occasionally with the dramaturgical structure of the source. And in Newell's production, The Poet is in a mess at the start of the 100 minutes and he's in the same mess at the end. I'd argue that more contrast, more of a developing personal crisis, would help the piece build. If O'Hare and Peterson are going to add this much of a frame, attempt this potent a deconstruction, they may as well go whole-hog and take their guy on an even fuller emotional journey.
But those are minor complaints. This is a formidably powerful piece of solo theater, here performed on a spectacular setting from Todd Rosenthal that evokes the rubble of history and of lessons mankind consistently fails to learn. Kane is simply extraordinary, and the import of an ancient text, here performed with forthright honesty but minimal deference, have rarely landed quite like this.
When: Through Dec. 11
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $40-$60 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org