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Sunday, 02 June 2013 13:21

The glory that was Greece shines in 'An Iliad'.

Written by Steve Callahan
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The glory that was Greece shines in 'An Iliad'.

I’ve long felt that Jerry Vogel is one of the best actors in town. His performance in "An Iliad" at the Upstream Theatre now convinces me that he is simply the very best actor in St. Louis. It’s one of the absolute best performances I’ve ever seen in over fifty years of serious involvement with theatre. And it’s a tour-de-force!

Vogel’s deep emotional involvement with a role, his many excellent technical skills, and his obvious dedication to hard, detailed work have been seen on many of our stages. But in "An Iliad" he has been given a role that could have been written as a showcase for his unique gifts. Single-handedly he tells Homer’s ancient and epic story of the siege of Troy—of Achilles and Hector and Agamemnon and Patroclus, of insult and wrath and revenge, of carnage and slaughter, of rage and blood-lust and the horror and glory of war.

The audience enters to see very simple stage that might be in a school or a meeting-room. A battered old class-room blackboard, a table, a chair, a nondescript wooden box. Above and behind we see what might be a frieze or bas-relief, roughly sketched, suggesting classical gods and heroes. To one side, a place for a musician—a guitar, small Persian drums. (I think the term is "tombak"?) The musician, Farsid Soltanshahi, enters, settles himself, then Jerry Vogel enters through the audience. He chats privately with the musician for a moment, then lights a few candles and a bit of incense—and he begins.

The program lists Vogel’s role as "The Poet," but strictly speaking he is a "rhapsode" or "bard" in the long tradition of such in which these tales survived for centuries. Costumer Katie Donovan has dressed Vogel very effectively in what I might call "timeless modern" clothing—he would be comfortable in any century. With graying unruly hair, strong features, a bit gaunt, he is the very image of the veteran teller of these tales. And in this brilliant adaptation he convinces us that he’s told them and sung them for decades—or even centuries. We sense that we’re listening to an eye witness to the events. His deep understanding of the motives and emotions of the characters in the tale brings them vividly to real life.

He begins, of course, by invoking the muses: he sings a few phrases in ancient Greek—the same words, the same language that all those poem-singers sang so many centuries ago.
From time to time the script has our bard struggle briefly to recall some name, some detail. He fleetingly appeals for a little help from his muse—or for a little music—to trigger his memory. It’s all so natural, so convincing.

This is no "updating" of "The Iliad", but occasionally our bard will use a modern analogy to bring home the conflict, the emotions, the suffering, the grief. And it's wonderfully effective. I’ve never had a classical work move me so completely. Once, in illustrating the battle site, Vogel uses the blackboard to draw trenches and many little circles for the fallen warriors—but then proceeds, one by one, to identify them: "This is Billy, the grocer’s son; this is Dan, who mowed your grass . . . " Instantly we feel the modernity, the immediacy of this war. Once there is a vast listing—almost an incantation—of the seemingly hundreds of wars throughout history; again an overwhelming enumeration of legendarily devastated cities, ancient and modern. The message is clear.

Music occasionally—and beautifully—supports the telling of the story. Drumming helps to build the tension of battle.

The adapters, Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, have very wisely chosen to present "The Iliad" as a story which is told rather than acted. Some years ago the Aquila Theatre company presented "The Wrath of Achilles"; more recently St. Louis Shakespeare did "The Odyssey". Both failed because they attempted to act out works which are fundamentally not "theatrical"—they're "bardic". They must be told in that single bardic voice.

And here Jerry Vogel gives life to that voice, and he does so magnificently, under the skilled and sensitive hand of director Patrick Siler.

In the animated conversation in the lobby after the show I overheard someone calling this an anti-war play. It's not. Homer is simply describing a war, not judging it. He describes not only the horror and grief and suffering of war, but also the passion, the joy, the glory of battle. To call it an anti-war poem would so diminish it. "The Iliad" was not only a canonical part of Greek education, it was, in a sense, the slasher film of its day. (Just look at all the very gory details Homer gives us!) To call "The Iliad" an anti-war story makes about as much sense as to call "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" an anti-violence film. At one point we are confronted with the question: Would it be better to return home safely without honor or to die with honor in glorious battle? . . . Well, would it?

"An Iliad" continues at the Kranzberg through June 9. Jerry Vogel makes it an evening you will never forget. Be prepared to weep.

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