An Iliad, a Court Theater production originally produced in March 2020 and made available this spring for virtual viewing, takes advantage of its unique setting in the galleries of the Oriental Institute for a modern retelling of Homer’s epic. Drawing inspiration from even those generally put off by traditional translations of ancient epics, An Iliad allows the viewer to mourn these long dead by placing them in a modern context. In addition, humor brings the story of the Iliad to life and modernity. The tale of the story by the poet (Timothy Edward Kane) is updated with modern language, but the emotional connection to the ancient epic is never lost.
Kane delivers a stunning performance as a poet: he tells the story naturally, with both modern and ancient language also feeling comfortable in his performance. His performance is on the verge of madness, driven mad by the story of death and destruction that he has to tell time and time again. His movements, both subtle and radical, make good use of the institute and the spectators around him. Kane dances his way around ancient artifacts and audience members, even walking through the institute at several points throughout the play, inviting audience members to join him. At the same time, Kane delivers a nuanced and emotional performance that, while arguably more captivating in person, still stands out on camera. He takes each character with grace –– he becomes Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Patroclus, and even the gods, bringing them to life while adding touches of the poet’s erratic personality throughout.
Production design An Iliad is minimalist yet powerful. The set design is minimal, inviting the public to admire the museum’s artifacts and sculptures instead. The music, when used, is subtle, adding a sense of foreboding to a tragic tale. The lighting in the room also adds a lot to the production. In the light, the poet changes form – at different times in the room he looks inviting, pleasant and urgent. The light cast on the actor portrays grief, anger and fire, and as it changes angle and color, shadows loom over the museum’s ancient artifacts. Everything in the production is dynamic and in continuous movement, bringing to life an ancient history and the artefacts of the institute.
In some ways, the virtual format of the piece adds to the performance – of course, the piece is now more widely accessible and captions are available, unlike a traditional performance. Instead of sitting in the museum during production, the viewer must instead interpret the piece through the camera, which itself becomes a kind of member of the audience. The virtual audience doesn’t miss any of the room’s vibrancy – the camera becomes part of the performance, following the poet around the room and changing angles to match the mood of the story.
As for the staging of the play, the ancient objects of the Oriental Institute recall the weight of history. As Kane describes in the production schedule, “Being surrounded by what remains of these once mighty civilizations puts the timelessness of the enduring qualities of humans into perspective. Above all, An Iliad is a story of love, death and sorrow. Not only a poignant take on an ancient tale, the play also becomes a societal commentary that is expertly extended throughout human history, down to modern times. In one of the play’s most powerful scenes, the poet enumerates wars throughout history to the point where the play was produced by Court Theater last year and recalls the destructive power of war during centuries, whether in Troy, Hiroshima, or Aleppo. As Kane comments, “These beautifully organized displays also represent vanity, jealousy, and a lust for power. Homer was telling this story when all of these things were bright and new, but here we are grappling with the same questions.
An Iliad was created by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare and directed by Charles Newell.