‘An Iliad’ aims to make the Trojan War relevant to today’s world

Actor Denis O'Hare
(Anne Cusack, Los Angeles Times)

Denis O’Hare’s campaign to write and perform a solo play based on “The Iliad” has now lasted almost as long as the Trojan War itself.

He began writing “An Iliad” in 2005 with his director and co-author, Lisa Peterson. Now they’re bringing their 100-minute distillation of Homer’s 24-chapter poem about the epic ancient struggle to L.A. for the first time, starting Jan. 15 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.


O’Hare will make his L.A. stage debut after more than 25 years of acclaim on Chicago and New York City stages, including a 2003 Tony Award playing a baseball-besotted accountant in Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out.”

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“The Iliad,” set in the ninth year of the 10-year siege of Troy, begins with the Greek fighting machine Achilles feeling fed up for his own egotistical reasons. Meanwhile, the peace-loving Trojan hero, Hector, though determined to defend his city, has had more than his fill of bloodshed.

Unlike these two chief characters, O’Hare’s mood hasn’t been dimmed nor his zest curtailed by the unusually long haul he’s had trying to conceive, perfect and perform the show. Part of what’s fueled him is the hope that “An Iliad” might actually advance the cause of nonviolence in some small way — although that’s a point on which he and co-creator Peterson don’t quite agree.

“I’m unabashedly antiwar and I would call myself a pacifist,” O’Hare said in a recent interview. “My hope would be to effect change. I think it’s difficult to see this play and not question the validity of war.”

O’Hare had planned to originate “An Iliad” himself, but his television career unexpectedly took off as its 2010 premiere approached, and other actors stepped in for the first round of productions. Among the roles sidetracking him were the elegant vampire he played in HBO’s “True Blood” and a recurring part as a judge on CBS’ “The Good Wife.” Now he’s the butler to Jessica Lange’s head witch on the FX show “American Horror Story: Coven.”

He’ll also be seen as a closeted gay aide to New York City Mayor Ed Koch in the coming HBO adaptation of “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s fiery 1985 play attacking government indifference during the first phase of the AIDS epidemic.

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Meanwhile, O’Hare will soon take “An Iliad” to upcoming arts festivals in Australia and New Zealand, knowing that the play, which has reaped consistent praise from critics and recent return engagements in Chicago and Minneapolis (where it was performed by other actors), could turn into a signature part he’ll be able to revisit for years to come.

The story of “An Iliad” began when Peterson, having recently ended her 10-year run as a resident director shepherding new plays for L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, saw a need for fresh theater works addressing what it means to be a nation at war.

Now based in New York City, she asked her friend O’Hare to help her sift through “The Iliad” in hopes of retelling it in a way that would honor the language and spirit of the original, yet be accessible and palpably current to Americans at a time when U.S. forces were trying to dodge IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“He was a real activist, politically loud and unafraid and articulate,” Peterson recalled in a separate interview — qualities she thought would help drive a play intended to get Americans thinking deeply about the consequences of going to war.

Lines from the late Princeton classicist Robert Fagles’ crisp, energetic 1990 verse translation of “The Iliad” make up about a third of the play. The rest is conversationally spoken riffs O’Hare and Peterson devised to condense the telling and lend it contemporary urgency and accessibility.

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While burrowing into Fagles’ translation, they turned on a video camera to improvise sequences in 21st century American vernacular, then transcribed the best bits and wove them into the play. An onstage bassist accompanies the performance in an echo of the musical adornment the ancient bards who first told the story are said to have used.

While O’Hare heeded the siren’s call of television, Hans Altwies performed the 2010 premiere at Seattle Repertory Theatre. O’Hare also got to see former “Angels in America” star Stephen Spinella and Chicago actor Timothy Edward Kane rehearse and perform “An Iliad” before his own turn finally came in 2012.

He had no qualms about stealing from them, and now that he’s touring with “An Iliad,” he’s grateful that their difficulties with the demanding part offered a warning against potential burnout.

O’Hare leaped from a couch in the Broad Stage’s upstairs lobby to illustrate one bit of artistic thievery. He became Achilles in a pork pie hat, doing a dance he credits to Altwies.

The slender actor suddenly seemed to take on hulking proportions, his legs hammering the floor like pile drivers as he slowly stomped three full circles across the carpet. Altwies, a former ballet dancer, devised this as Achilles’ victory celebration following his climactic evisceration of Hector. O’Hare saw, concurred and cheerfully appropriated.

“I stole from Hans and Stephen and Tim,” he volunteers, a rare admission for an actor to make, let alone in triplicate. But O’Hare notes that, when it comes to Homer, the act of copying has a certain historic dignity. “That was the bardic tradition. There wasn’t one person who did ‘The Iliad.’”

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Scholars think that oral storytellers passed the poem along, taking and adding as they chose, until it was finally put down in writing more than 2,600 years ago.

Seeing the toll it took on the others to fight the Trojan War all by themselves eight times a week (the standard workload on major stages), O’Hare, who’ll turn 52 early in the L.A. run of “An Iliad,” decided to make discretion the better part of thespian valor.

“Hans Altwies was 32 when he did it and it almost destroyed him,” he says. “Tim Kane in Chicago got in trouble. Stephen had a really tough time getting through it. I said, ‘I will never do eight shows a week of this monster.’”

When he finally tackled it at the off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop nearly two years ago, O’Hare shared the load with Spinella, performing on alternate nights. He’ll do no more than five performances a week at the Broad Stage.

Continuing their partnership, O’Hare and Peterson are developing a second play steeped in an epic ancient text. “The Good Book,” which calls for seven actors, aims to portray how the Bible came to be written, and its effect through more than 2,500 years of history.

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The co-authors have agreed to disagree on what “An Iliad” can accomplish.

Peterson says she never had an activist agenda despite having recruited O’Hare partly for his antiwar ardor. She doubts that a play can help modify what she sees as humanity’s inherently warlike ways.

“For me, the most interesting thing in ‘The Iliad’ is that it examines this part of human nature without judgment,” she said. “It’s as much a celebration of war as it is a critique.” By putting Western civilization’s primal war story onstage in a contemporary form, she said, “at least we’re talking about it.”

O’Hare, on the other hand, sees the play as an object lesson against war — and as a contribution to the struggle for nonviolence. “My hope would be to effect change,” he said. “I would hope people who see this play have conversations that lead to other conversations that lead to action. Gun control, for a start.”

So far, not so good in the change-effecting department. There’s a litany toward the end of “An Iliad” in which its storyteller, labeled the Poet, exhausts himself emotionally naming more than 160 wars from the dawn of history to today. The list, which is not meant to be comprehensive, has grown longer by two since the play’s premiere, with civil wars in Libya and Syria appended. Peterson says the fighting in the Central African Republic is a contender for yet another spot.

Apart from his idealism, O’Hare, who lost a longtime romantic partner, stage director Derek Anson Jones, to AIDS 14 years ago, now has a parent’s need to see the world become less violent. He and his husband, interior designer Hugo Redwood, live in Brooklyn and are close to completing the legal adoption of Declan, who they’ve cared for as foster parents since the week of his birth 2 1/2 years ago.

O’Hare imagines that the Poet in “An Iliad” is Homer himself, re-emerging throughout history to retell the story of the Trojan War in the places that need to hear it most, until the day comes when it no longer needs repeating — humanity finally having outgrown organized mass violence.

“Cynicism never even occurs to him,” the actor said. “He definitely gets demoralized and disgusted, but he’s convinced that one day it’ll work. I’m not cynical either. I’m an optimist when it comes to what we can do.”


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