Out of the darkness, the epic poet Homer arrives to once again sing of the anger and devastation that is war.
It is “An Iliad” like you’ve never seen, and celebrated stage, television and film actor Denis O’Hare will be performing it this weekend at the Contemporary Arts Center.
Cast into our present time, this Homer is without his bearings and horrified that the cause of his telling remains.
“As of this performance, there have been over 170 major conflicts since the Trojan War, and they grow at each telling,” said O’Hare.
“Libya, Syria, Ukraine. We continue to add to the list.”
“Homer’s experience is not someone else’s story. It is told by someone who was there. It is a story of violence both institutional and personal. But it isn’t only a story of rage, it is also a story of heroism and kindness.”
In other words, it is war in full, or, as Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called it, “an intimate solo show illuminating both the heroism and the horror of warfare.”
Part of a daring programming lineup that introduces New Orleans audiences to national and international works, “An Iliad” was conceived and written by O’Hare and his director Lisa Peterson and has been a labor of love for them for almost a decade.
“In 2005, Lisa and I decided that we wanted to talk about ‘The Iliad.’ It took five years of hashing it out and a lot of sweat-raising writing to get us to where we thought we were ready.”
Working from Robert Fagles’ accessible and muscular translation, the Tony Award-winning actor and “American Horror Story” star began with the premise that his poet is a cursed wanderer, summoned into existence as long as the folly of war remains.
O’Hare describes his poet as almost a Beckettian character. “He is doomed to be alive,” O’Hare said, “to tell this story wherever he is needed.”
For the character of Homer, the telling of the tale is “a dreadful struggle. It costs him too much. And to make matters worse, as it begins, he is without his muse, making it that much more difficult to tell the story.”
However, that inspiration eventually arrives in the form of a stand-up bass, helping the poet find his footing, and at that point the tale begins to unfold in all its glory and terror.
With footing and voice found, the poet finds the link between his own story and the present day.
A chapter in the original text called “The Catalogue of Ships” recounts in detail the towns and villages sending men and munitions into the Trojan War. It was added to resonate with individual audiences, so they could hear their own history in Homer’s telling.
“And when the names of the dead were recited. Homer’s audiences knew those boys,” said O’Hare, who hopes to honor the spirit of those who have given their lives for such causes.
“Just as Homer uses his chapter on the catalogue of ships to connect audiences of his own time, everywhere we perform the show, whether it’s New York or Ohio, we include the names of local towns where men and women have shipped off to fight our wars.”
It makes the material both immediate and strange, forcing the listener to realize how little progress has been made in some ways.
But for all its meta-theatricality and contemporary energies, the production has its foundations in its source material: one man engaged in the spinning of a yarn.
“Ultimately, it is about storytelling and the craft of theater,” O’Hare said. “We are using words to create a vivid picture. It is an invigorating ‘to-do’ performed for people sitting in the dark.”