To say that war is hell is to speak a cliché, but to say that war is poetry sounds intriguing. Until, of course, you stop to think and realize that some of the oldest extant literature is actually poetry about war.
Take Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, for example. Both epic poems tell war stories and recount almost unspeakable horrors mixed with moments of grandeur, honor across enemy lines, and, sometimes, deceit and trickery (remember the Trojan Horse?).
In Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s modern version (An Iliad, currently being given a fine production at Carlsbad’s New Village Arts), the only speaking part is named The Poet. Eventually, The Poet is joined on stage by The Muse, a bassist who both accompanies The Poet and spurs that person forward through music.
An Iliad focuses on the rivalry between Hector and Achilles, representing the warring Trojans and Greeks, respectively. The Poet describes the preparations for, engagement in, and the aftermath of a battle that is both climactic and decisive. The Poet also laments how this story of war is an all-too-common one.
Linda Libby, one of San Diego’s finest actors, takes the role of The Poet. From her first entrance, through a loading door on the back wall of a stage cluttered to look like a junk room, Ms. Libby commands the stage, providing not only detailed descriptions of the story but also emphasizing its humanity. Gunnar Biggs plays The Muse with aplomb. His compositions, as he performs them on the double bass, provide an effective counterpoint to Ms. Libby’s words.
The “junk” in the junk room turns out to be useful, both physically and metaphorically, thanks to John Anderson’s scenic design. The Poet is ready to be a battle observer (or to watch the passing Amtrak train on an evening where rain is threatened) in costumes designed by Mary Larson. Alex Crocker-Lakness’ lighting design focuses on demarcating areas of the stage, while Melanie Chen’s sound design is as unobtrusive as it should be.
Jacole Kitchen’s direction is subtle and effective. The Poet’s words, both in telling the story and in understanding the motives and emotions behind it, are particularly dense, so Mea Hutson Hall’s work as dramaturg deserves a special call-out. And New Village Arts staffer AJ Knox has created a graphic novel version of An Iliad that hits the major themes and introduces the characters. It is worth reading on its own, and if you’d like to do so a version of it may be downloaded here.
An Iliad was produced by La Jolla Playhouse in 2012, in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and it was the surprise winner of the largest number of Craig Noel Awards for that year. The play is so rich that another production is warranted, particularly so because Ms. Libby’s take on it is full of insight. It’s an even richer experience this time around.