I’m the kind of girl who has, on more than one occasion, been approached by a person of let’s say…questionable mental stability. I’d like to think it’s because I have kind eyes and I’m approachable, but in reality, I’m just the girl who screams “I’ll listen to your stories. Here. On the street. Yes, in the cold, for an hour. No really, I will. Please. Do go on.” And, it’s true, I will. Clearly, I must have an imaginary hobo mark on me that says, “she’s totally good for a listen” because I’m a veritable magnet for the eccentric ramblings of wildly imaginative and often transient animations. Whether it’s just my manners, or the romantic notion that the seemingly insane babble of a stranger might in fact lead to some great adventure, treasure, revelation, fantastical prophetic fulfillment, or the idea that we’re all a little mad, I’m not sure, but I find myself listening, challenged and intrigued at the possibilities of these kooky corner heart-to-hearts more times than you’d probably expect. And, in each of these encounters (I won’t say conversations as I’m not much of an active participant in these types of sessions) I notice a pattern which happens to perfectly mimic my experience as an audience member at San Jose Stage’s current production of An Iliad.
Like a personal buffer zone when first approached by an unknown, this play breaks so many rules of mine. So many. 110 minutes with no intermission being one of the big rules that when broken, almost always diminishes my personal enjoyment of a piece in at least some way. With one person on stage and subject matter taking me back to college, my personal attention span is rolling its eyes on a Wednesday straight after work at the mention of this show.
And, at first you’re caught off guard. You’re not expecting perhaps a disheveled, post-apocalyptic episode to take place and yet after you think about it, it kind of figures. It takes a few minutes to assess and commit to “sticking around.” It takes a bit of time to get used to the cadence. To decode and decipher. For our star character to settle in to HIS comfort, for him to negotiate with his personal demons and seduce the muses into cooperation. It’s jarring and a bit scary and unclear, but 20 minutes into it, you find yourself improbably comfortable with the style, interested, intellectually engaged, emotionally invested and hopeful.
It’s heavy and wordy in places and that’s a clear homage to the epic work itself as well as the enormity of the topic which at its very core is, ugly, senseless, too, too common war. While I’m pretty sure I can have my English degree revoked for saying so, The Iliad is words, words, and more words, interspersed with lists and embellishments and descriptions. 15,693 lines of verse make up the source material. It was a 9 year war, it wasn’t ever going to make a short poem or play I wager. And, while it’s a good thing I ate a light dinner, have a substantial bladder, had a coat for the cold theatre and was able to bring my drink into the show, I will say that while long, it didn’t feel epically so.
Somewhere between a madly popular Professor (you know, the kind with a waitlist for days to get into their classes) and that person you try not to make contact with in the dark alley is this guy, on stage, relaying, portraying, really reliving, explaining and making an ancient piece of literature completely relevant to today with Clift notes of modern parallels. Just when you think you’re completely lost, the context is entirely too ancient or too richly prosed to comprehend, and you feel yourself drifting away, you’re sucked back in with a witty aside, a genuinely gripping display of expression, a dramatic shadow, and the coarse atonal scoring of this visceral play. This play acts in waves of concentration, pushing and pulling, like war ships coming into shore, like armies descending on a city, like life and History.
This is a physically demanding work on a lot of levels and it’s a triumph in that regard for sure. It’s an admirable work overall, but thick and dark and not at all linear or easy to follow. I’m a sucker for Greek Mythology, but this isn’t going to be for everyone. I don’t know if it’s possible to stay engaged 100% all the way through, but I also think, that’s okay. It’s like skimming a book and latching on to the good bits or nodding in agreement with your street companion to get to the next point, your next gem of wisdom or bit of integral verse. I thought the good parts were spellbinding and there was a lot more humor in it than I could have ever imagined. I left with take-aways. With moments. Strong and powerful ones, but moments more than minutes. For that, I have to give it 3 /2 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara. A fundamentally complex, stylized piece with deeply poignant intensity, fine performance value and glimpses of true poetry. An Iliad plays through May 4th at the Stage in Downtown San Jose.