Photo: Courtesy of atlasarts.org
Photo: Courtesy of atlasarts.org

An Iliad Brings Epic Poetry to the Modern Age

The Poet begins by reaching for something that might help him recall the details of the story of Achilles and his historic battle against Hector of Troy. He extends his arms, grasping toward the audience, to no avail. After a crestfallen sigh, he begins his invocation to the Muses, not unlike those epic poets of old. He asks them for their blessing in retelling this story, and seeks their inspiration to help him recall the details of this woeful tale of man’s rage. The Poet’s petition to the Muses must have brought on blessings in real life, considering the expertise with which this tale was so beautifully and carefully told.

Iason Togias, our Poet and only source of information, does a fantastic job of giving the epic tale context our modern society can easily relate to. His incredible range of expression helps illustrate the many emotions the characters in this play experience, from impatience, pride, heartbreak, victory, despondency and everything in between.

Matt Chilton was our Muse, who without a word, perfectly punctuated the poetic dialogue with tidbits from his double bass, coupled with wayward glances at the audience and a knowing exchange with the Poet here and there.

An Iliad was carried on words and gesture alone; a case in point being that the only scene in this play was a study setting, with a desk, a chair, a globe and some books strewn about. By the time the play is over, you hardly even noticed the backdrop because Togias’ arresting performance has given you a guided tour around the city of Troy.

Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare took on the arduous task of adapting a frequently studied work of classic literature and made it even more relatable than the best college lecturer could (and you can take my word for that, since my only experience with this story comes from that very setting).

Since the work was originally published and first performed five years ago, director Conor Bagley had to make some additions to give us the most current iteration of events. This particular version of the story even incorporated a reference to Flint, Michigan in regards to the composition of the Greek army. The idea behind it was to illustrate the various backgrounds of the soldiers in the army. As one of few people of color in the intimate black box theater setting, it took on added significance of asserting that there were, in fact, people like myself living, existing and participating in these environments (a fact that is often , unfortunately, glossed over in modern interpretations of works like these).

Another particularly captivating moment was when Togias recited every single war known to have taken place in the world (which must have been a real feat to memorize), just to prove a point about how widespread and, unfortunately, uncommon it is to feel the effects of war and to experience the profound rage and grief that Achilles and Hector both felt in their battle.

The play was especially relatable, even with my boyfriend and I’s limited experience with Homer’s original work, because the dialogue (or monologue if you don’t believe in breaking the fourth wall) appealed to a range of human emotion which is timeless in its potency. It had the air of a much-needed crash course in Greek mythology but still referenced lots of current events (like the conflict in Israel, for example).

Though the play will soon conclude its run, I would definitely keep my eyes peeled for future productions by any member of the cast and crew of this stunning performance.

An Iliad will be showing at Atlas Performing Arts Center the show until June 9. Tickets are $15-$25 and can be purchased here.

Atlas Performance Arts Center: 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002; www.atlasarts.org

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Aja Neal

Aja is a modern-day renaissance woman, a patron of the arts, and a lover of commas. When she's not writing for On Tap, she can be found dancing in a studio, on a dance floor, or alone in her room when no one's watching.