Before it was written down, “The Iliad” by Homer was passed down through the ages through an oral tradition being revised as it went. “An Iliad,” the 2012 theatrical adaptation by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, takes it a step further passing it down to today’s audiences.
“My experience reading it and my experience doing it are two wildly different things,” explained Meredith McDonough, who is directing the upcoming Weston Playhouse production.
“I read it as a meditation on war, and then we work on it and I think, ‘Oh no, this is an exciting, hopeful, funny, dynamic story — desperately looking at something and hoping for change.’
“It’s not a meditation at all — it’s such an active story,” she said.
Weston Playhouse Theatre Company will present “An Iliad,” based on Homer’s “The Iliad,” July 14-Aug. 6 under The Tent at Walker Farm in Weston.
“We’re very happy to be back here in this room doing our thing,” David Bonanno, who plays the poet, added, during a Zoom interview from Walker Farm, where the play is being rehearsed.
“Coming out of this past year of COVID, it’s a new adventure,” he said. “We’re going to be in a tent. Everything’s going to be different.”
One of the oldest extant works of Western literature, “The Illiad” is an epic poem attributed to Homer that was first written down about the 8th century B.C. It tells of the 10-year bloody siege of Troy by a coalition of Mycenaean Greek states, focusing particularly on the fight to the death between the Greek Achilles and the Trojan Hector. (“The Odyssey,” the other epic poem attributed to Homer,” focuses on events following “The Iliad.”)
“An Iliad” isn’t simply a condensed recitation of the poem; rather it mixes the contemporary with the historical. Although the script calls for verses from the original drama and even a few lines in Old Greek, the attitude and language are of today.
“It’s such an old story and, our way of telling it is the primitive way of a single storyteller coming before a group of people, then telling the story and making it relevant for them today,” Bonanno said. “It’s just so basic and primal, telling this story in this very simple way.”
Staging “Iliad” was complicated by its move from indoors at Walker Farm to outdoors in the tent. (All professional theater in Vermont is being presented outdoors, due to COVID concerns and Actors Equity Association rules.)
“‘How do you put it in a tent with a parking lot?” McDonough asked. “What we thought about, the design team and I, was, ‘How do we make the tent feel organic?’
“OK, here’s what I know about the rules of this space, now let’s play. We tried to create a space that had opportunities and now we figure out how to use them,” she said.
“Without any bells and whistles, it’s just very basic and very simple. And the dynamics come out of the storyteller,” McDonough said.
“It’s still going to be light out when we start, so we’re not going to have a lot of fancy lighting effects. It’s just very basic storytelling,” Bonanno said. “I didn’t know what the ‘rules’ would be until we figured it out together.”
“Sometimes you think as an actor, ‘Oh this makes perfect sense,’ and Meredith will go, ‘What are you doing?’” She never says it like that, but she thinks it,” he said with a laugh.
Peterson and O’Hare based their script on the 1990 translation by Robert Fagle, which is almost novel-like, exploiting every scene for maximum vividness.
“It’s totally playable as an actor,” Bonanno said. “Even with Shakespeare you can get bogged down with the language in it. It takes the audience a few minutes to get used to it in their ears. Maybe because I’m living in it now, this doesn’t seem that way. It’s very accessible and familiar to the ear.”
Although one of Weston’s most experienced actors, Bonanno is facing his first one-man show. Fortunately he was handed the script back in April.
“One of the things right off the bat that was I had to commit to rehearsal knowing the script forward and backwards,” he said. “That had to be a given. As an actor a lot of times, we learn the words as we’re rehearsing. I found, working with this, there’s so much else to do, figuring out in the room with Meredith how to tell the story. And you still forget lines, because you’re trying to walk and talk and chew gum at the same time.”
And then there’s facing the audience directly for an hour and a half.
“We don’t have the blessing of the fourth wall (between the actor and the audience). In a lot of this story, I’m looking right at everybody,” Bonanno said. “It’s not like in the theater when you have all those lights shining behind you, you can kind of see only a few faces
“It’s all very present,” he said, “and that is absolutely terrifying — and absolutely exciting and wonderful at the same time.”
McDonough hopes that the play has the same effect on audiences.
“It’s a piece that provokes conversation. It ends with a question,” she said. “My hope is after our experience of being so silo-ed, you will turn to the person next to you and start to talk about it — or talk about anything.”
“We’re all coming out of our caves,” Bonanno said. “It’s scary and exciting at the same time.”
jim.lowe @timesargus.com / jim.lowe @rutlandherald.com