'An Iliad' celebrates the storyteller while deploring war

A stage with no backdrop and cluttered with backstage detritus greets audiences of Seattle Rep's "An Iliad" as they enter the theater and take their seats. An extended period of total darkness envelopes the theater, signaling the opening of the play and transporting us to a time before electricity, television and movies, a time when storytelling was the primary form of entertainment.
The lights come up to reveal Seattle actor Hans Altwies dressed in a shabby hobo suit. He introduces himself as simply the Poet and wearily announces that he will be telling us a story he has told many times before. The story used to take him days to tell; now it will just take him a few hours. The already intimate Leo K Theater grows smaller still as the Poet invites us to gather around and hear his tale.
The Poet's story, a 90-minute monologue adapted from Homer's epic poem of the Trojan War, weaves contemporary references throughout this tale of a war fought more than 30 centuries ago. Adapters Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson (who also directed) play some of the initial allusions for laughs, such as comparing Achilles to Rambo. But the references increasingly chill us. We hear tales of Achilles' bloody deeds and of young men transformed by battle rage that cause us to question the concept of heroism that we inherited from the Greeks. The Poet's repetitive intoning of "nine years" since the Greek soldiers left home brings to mind our own soldiers' multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Toward the close of his tale, the Poet lists in an increasingly faltering voice the violent conflicts from the Trojan War to the present, causing us to wonder if the propensity to wage war is an immutable part of our natures.
Actor O'Hare originated the idea to adapt Homer's Iliad and he intended the part of the Poet for himself. But circumstances prevented him from taking on the role; luckily the wonderful Altwies was available to step in. "An Iliad" provides Altwies with a superb platform to display his acting chops. He seamlessly transforms himself minute by minute, from the wisecracking hobo who could be the Vietnam veteran panhandling on a Seattle street corner, to a lauded bard chanting the original Greek verse, to the many personages populating Homer's tale of the Trojan War - heroic and loving Hector; enraged Achilles; the wives, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers receiving the equivalent of the "3 O'clock phone call" notifying them of a loved one's loss in battle.
The apparent simplicity of a single performer telling a story on an unadorned stage underscores the subtle theatricality of "An Iliad." Every seemingly random object in Rachel Hauck's minimalist set has a purpose; the lighting by Scott Zielinski and Paul James Prendergast's sound design seamlessly heighten the drama.
"An Iliad" closes on May 16. It is well worth a viewing.[[In-content Ad]]