The best tales are the ones that can be retold across generations. Some ancient stories still resonate in the 21st century because they hold truths about humanity that transcend modern times and electronic devices.
Homer’s epic poem, “The Iliad,” is one such tale. The story of 55 days in the ninth year of the Trojan War has been retooled over the past decade as “An Iliad” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, an actor best known for his role on the HBO television series “True Blood.”
The one-act, one-person play being performed at the Stonington Opera House through Saturday is an homage to storytelling and an anti-war treatise. It succeeds much better at the former than the latter because of choices made by the playwrights. Despite being too preachy at times, “An Iliad” sends the audience home wondering if there ever can be an end to war but with a renewed appreciation for storytellers of all ilks.
Opera House Arts’ production of “An Iliad” is a triumph for Boston-based actress Marianna Bassham and musician Anthony Colin Leva, whose use of the upright bass to score the play and create sound effects is amazing and effective. By reconfiguring the Opera House from a proscenium into a three-quarter round space, director Meg Taintor creates a town square atmosphere that works perfectly for this.
Bassham as the poet wanders on stage carrying a suitcase and struggles to remember the tale. She almost reluctantly begins the story of the clash of mighty warriors Hector and Achilles calling on the muses to help her recall it all.
“An Iliad” is best when it uses the language of Robert Fagles’ translation of “The Iliad,” from which it was taken. Bassham’s portrayal of how the gods toy with mortals on the earth, the making of Achilles’ shield and the final battle are mesmerizing, in part because of the poetry of the language.
Leva not only makes joyful and mournful music on his instrument, he coaxes from the bass the sounds of war. Without the musician, the production’s emotional impact would not have been as great. His contribution to “An Iliad” cannot be overstated.
For the most part, Taintor and Bassham are able to overcome the most didactic portions of the show, including a long list of American town names that replaces the ones in the ancient world from which soldiers came to fight beside Hector or Achilles and a seemingly endless naming of every conflict on the face of the earth that spilled a drop of blood.
Taintor’s best decision was to gut the Opera House and make it a more intimate space so theatergoers forget they’re inside but feel as though it they’re on the edge of the battlefield, observing it all firsthand as the storyteller did.
Most set designers who build a thrust into an audience paint it one color, usually black. Robin Vest’s platform that uses more than two-thirds of the floor of the Opera House is unpainted. The different colored planks not only are beautiful, they help give texture to the tale. Depending on where Bassham is in her story, they could represent waves under the ships or rows of soldiers in different colored uniforms or the carnage left on the battlefield.
Natalie Robin’s lighting design not only complements Vest’s set but also seems somehow to be coordinated with Leva’s score. The lighting plot is complementary but not invasive.
Taintor said in the director’s notes in the program that she chose the play months ago to raise questions about rage and anger in theatergoers’ personal lives.
“But as the summer has unfolded, the events in our world and our country have echoed through the play,” she wrote. “How do we hold ourselves accountable and take the actions we need to take to move forward together, rather than locked in distrustful crouches?”
Using Homer’s epic poem to ask questions about wars within and without is a wonderful and worthy idea. But “An Iliad,” like other reworked stories such as “Cyrano,” needs more poetry and less sermonizing to truly honor the teller of the tale and to remain true to the story’s essence.
“An Iliad” will be performed at the Stonington Opera House through Saturday, July 23. For information, call 367-2788 or visit operahousearts.org.