San Francisco Theater Review: AN ILIAD (Berkeley Rep)

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by Stacy Trevenon on October 24, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

BERKELEY REP HITS A HOMER

It utterly astonishes that the epic tale of the Trojan War could be rendered with power and grace by a solo actor. The fact that one actor would have, and does have, the reserves to go for 100 unflagging minutes, bringing to life a litany of historical facts, names, dates, and more – all with a human face on them – seems beyond belief. Stacy Trevenon’s Stage and Cinema review of Berkeley Rep’s AN ILIADBut such is the case with Berkeley Rep’s An Iliad, adapted from Homer’s epic by director Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. On the Berkeley Rep stage, Shakespeare festival alum Henry Woronicz, simply called “The Poet,” accomplishes all the above in a mesmerizing performance, rendering the facts and impacts of the Trojan War in a graceful and powerful way that’s not only well-suited for the stage, but a great historical and mythological reminder for the spectator.

Some may recall the Trojan War as dry history from high school, but under Woronicz it becomes immediate and unforgettable. Not only does he avoid the dullness that might come with just a historical recitation, no matter how interesting, but he molds a tapestry of war throughout history into a theatrical tour de force as he skips effortlessly from resonant Greek poetry to seamless storytelling to colloquial battlefield musings to sly humor to heartrending anti-war cautionary emotion.

While the play does demand some mental concentration to follow as Woronicz shifts gears and language, it is hardly a regurgitation of classics that the modern mind can’t get around – and it is all worth any cerebral effort on the part of the viewer.

Stacy Trevenon’s Stage and Cinema review of Berkeley Rep’s AN ILIADVarious elements of the production stand out like stars in a black night sky. One is The Poet’s recreation of the final confrontation between Hector and Achilles, with Hector’s inevitable death and the gruesome celebration of victorious Achilles, who drags the body from his chariot round and round the city against the backdrop of Hector’s wife and child awaiting his homecoming. We hear of the fickleness of the gods, the travesty of the Trojan horse, and we see the Poet’s heartbreak as he recounts the scenes: “If you had seen it,” he sighs.

Stacy Trevenon’s Stage and Cinema review of Berkeley Rep’s AN ILIADMost effective of all was watching Woronicz list – in a bullet like volley – a litany of wars throughout time. The undeniable relentlessness keeps the audience rapt while compelling us to do a little inner scrutiny as a species.

Woronicz’ other half on stage, Brian Ellingsen – with his acoustic standup bass – adds an equally mesmerizing presence and power. From a platform high above the stage, Ellingsen injects a lifeblood into the history by providing an emotional aural base. Stone-faced, effectively symbolizing humanity witnessing its unending cycle of wars, he still coaxes an amazing volley of sounds from his instrument to match the script: Fluid lines of pleading music, strident percussion, aural punctuation, wails from the red battlefields of antiquity, and cries that are wistful, electrifying, warlike, and unearthly. A beautiful complement to the story.

Stacy Trevenon’s Stage and Cinema review of Berkeley Rep’s AN ILIADStrangely enough, you may get so caught up in Woronicz’ engrossing performance that you get lost in the details, making the storyline a bit difficult to follow. Scenic designer Rachel Hauck’s clean black minimalist set helps, as it channels focus onto the actor and the story. Lighting designer Scott Zielinski cleanly underscores and emphasizes moments, focusing when appropriate to streamline the emotional impact. Costume designer Marina Draghici picked the perfect look for both men – ultra-casual and contemporary, a look that didn’t interfere with the story but underlined an Everyman image appropriate for war in human history.

Through the Poet’s verse and the siren song of Ellingsen’s bass, the history pages flow with blood and come to macabre life.  I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

An Iliad
The Thrust Stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
(a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse)
scheduled to end on November 18, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.berkeleyrep.org

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