When James DeVita stumbles onto the stage in the first moments of the Milwaukee Rep’s production of An Iliad, he looks a bit puny and inconsequential. Those are not words usually associated with DeVita, an actor of considerable power and presence. But here he is, thrown into the midst of Andrew Boyce’s magnificent apocalypse of a setting, blinking and disoriented, looking to the audience to get his bearings. He pays no mind of the setting, but we do, and have done since we first took our seats in the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater: there’s a tall bombed-out proscenium flanked on one side by a tower of rubble, a floor blown through to expose mysterious spaces below, piles of broken furniture and equipment, including a scaffold that may once have helped scene painters render a pastoral landscape at sunset.
In Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s script, DeVita’s character is simply called “poet," and he is alone on stage, except for a musician playing the part The Muse (here, cellist Alicia Storin). But at first, searching the audience for familiar faces, trying to get his bearings, he seems more like a vaudevillian on an extended tour. (He asks to look at an audience-member’s program to figure out where he is.) He is here, it seems, to tell a story. And if he seems a little weary and distracted, it’s probably because he’s been telling variations on that story for almost 3,000 years.
It’s a story worth retelling, of course. Not only because The Iliad’s recounting of the Trojan War is one of our oldest stories, but because it doesn’t seem to “stick.” War remains a fact of life, an object of both remorse and fascination. And the genius of An Iliad (and of this exceptional production) lies in the way it explores this seemingly eternal tension: The horrific reality of war and the seductiveness of its legends and lore.
It doesn’t take long for DeVita to assert himself as a palpable presence in the relatively large Powerhouse space (past American productions have been staged in theater’s less than half the size). He does so with intimate appeals, speaking soto voce about the thousands of soldiers assembled for the battle, coming from towns like Buffalo or Kenosha. And he does so with visceral and physical evocations of battle, not flinching from Homer’s (through the language of translator Robert Fagles) powerfully precise descriptions of the wounds of war.
Director John Langs--who, like DeVita, is a regular at American Players Theatre—knows his actor’s strengths, and he helps him use his classical chops and physical discipline to make the most of the production’s challenges. They are able to bring focus in close when it’s required—watch DeVita’s hands as he describes the details on Achilles’ shield. Or to create moments of explosive energy, as in their re-creation of the testosterone-fueled battle scenes.
One particular moment captures the powerful conceit of the play—that war’s grand abstractions involve real people. As the Poet attempts to describe the scene after a battle, a sprawling panorama of a World War I battlefield is projected onto the rubble-strewn stage. There is no way to “read” the image on the rough surfaces of the rubble, but the Poet holds up a single sheet of white paper in midair, and an individual corpse is captured on the small “screen.” He says a few words about one dead soldier, then moves the paper to find another, and another, and another. Like Homer’s poetry, it’s a powerful way to find the tragic human stories--one after another after another--in the unfathomable abstraction of war.