An Iliad, the acclaimed play by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare based on Homer’s Iliad, remains, for several reasons, an oft-produced favorite of theater companies more than ten years after its premiere. First: It requires only one performer, and the stage design is typically simple—running from minimalist to yard-sale jumble—making for a relatively inexpensive production to mount. Second: Sadly, the play is always topical, since it’s about the universality, inevitability, brutality, and futility of war, and the authors have explicitly allowed for the script to be updated to include wars that erupt post-publication. Third: This theatrical adaptation of Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s epic poem is startlingly well written—at times lyrical, at times vernacular, at times whimsical and wryly humorous, always moving and engaging.
To be successful, this play relies on the talents of its sole performer, who must not only memorize and internalize a demanding, 100-minute-or-so monologue that includes snippets in Greek, but must also portray nearly a dozen characters beyond that of the world-weary, eternal Poet, despondent at having to sing this same old sad song yet again. Of course, the director also carries some of the burden to keep the action going and ensure the work packs an emotional punch.
In Shakespeare & Company’s production of An Iliad (running now through July 3 in Lenox, Massachusetts), director Jeffrey Mousseau and actor MaConnia Chesser have created a spectacular evening of theater, without any of the bells and whistles of showier shows. As The Poet, Chesser holds the audience spellbound, recounting the bloody, decade-long siege of Troy by the Mycenaean Greek states, and musing on the nature war, temporally shifting from ancient history to present day, and fluidly shifting perspectives from the tale’s heroes to secondary characters, including the two doomed warriors, Hector of Troy and the Greek half-god, Achilles.
Chesser also delivers adept tonal shifts, from enacting death and atrocities on the field of battle to delivering joking asides to her rapt audience, using her voice, facial expressions, and bodily posture to full effect. Throughout the demanding monologue, there is none of that actorly remove; she inhabits each character, resides within the words and actions. Though this is just the start of the Berkshires cultural season, I doubt audiences will see a stronger, more affecting performance this summer. This is a must-see production.
Mosseau also deserves credit for this bravura performance; he and Chesser originated this production at Mosseau’s home stage, the Ancram Opera House, in 2021, when the most compelling issue of the day was the COVID pandemic, which is reflected within the play by the plague inflicted upon the Greek army by the god Apollo. At this current moment in time, the most resonant issues are, of course, the pointless war waged by Putin against Ukraine, and the plague of mass shootings across the United States. (It’s breathtaking when, in the script, Buffalo, NY, is mentioned as one of the hometowns of boys who have pointlessly died in war.)
The set design by Sarah Edkins is simple yet ingenious: the audience first views a jumble of furniture and a clothing rack that looks like a theater company’s prop and costume department has been ransacked. Chesser moves through, tidying things up a bit before launching into the Greek invocation that kicks off the text. Early on she grabs a scarf from the clothing rack, which later in the play—through the magic of sterling stagecraft—becomes Hector’s infant Astyanax in his wife Andromache’s arms. Stools stand in for young men killed in war; not just bodies, but real people, loved ones lost. Effective lighting, with shocking splashes of red, and sound cues heighten the most tragic moments of the play.
An Iliad makes clear the universal drivers of war: pride, rage, and the machinations of petty gods. While we longer believe in the denizens of Mount Olympus, there remains a cadre of rich, powerful people with fragile egos calling the shots and pulling the strings, and as long as they are ruled by emotions, war will persist. The litany of wars the Poet recites at one striking moment in the play will get longer and longer. When will they ever learn?
Photos by Nile Scott Studios, provided by Shakespeare & Company.