Past is prologue in ‘An Iliad’

ALBANY, N.Y. — David Barlow is reluctant to call "The Iliad" an old story, even though the epic poem was written by Homer almost 3,000 years ago. "I prefer timeless," he says. "It's a compelling piece of literature that takes a hard, communal look at who we are today. It's about right now."

In at least one aspect, Barlow is correct. This production of "An Iliad," which plays at Capital Repertory Theatre Tuesday through April 2 (previews begin Friday), is a modern retelling of the story contained in "The Iliad." This modern adaptation of the classic poem was first produced in 2012. The creators consciously altered the title calling it "An Iliad" instead of "The Iliad". Barlow's character is not identified as Homer; he's simply called The Poet.

Even more important to Barlow is that the language of the play is more contemporary. "It's very conversational in tone, which is not only a blessing — it's a needed blessing. It's imperative this not be an academic history lesson."

However, he comforts those who might fear too much use of the vernacular will diminish the eloquent language in the original. "There are moments that demand heightened language. A theatrical dynamic within the work is the way things change on a dime. The language goes from contemporary to classic just as suddenly as the mood shifts from lighthearted to dramatic.

Barlow calls the show "a terrific piece of theater that tells a good story." He attributes a lot of that to the fact that the adaptors are theater people. Denis O'Hare is a well-known actor who helped originate the role and Lisa Peterson is a respected theater director who directed the original N.Y. production.

Barlow, who might be familiar to area audiences from his work in Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" at Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge in 2015, calls the role "Herculean." "It's incredibly physical and has a wide emotional range." As for the technique needed in creating a wide array of characters, he says he relies on the first rule of good acting. "Always find the truth of the moment. This is a play filled with human truth."

He describes The Poet as "the guy who invites the audience to listen to his stories." In this case, it's mostly the stories of the Greek-Trojan War. While the original was a sprawling wide-ranging work, this adaptation has a tighter focus and concentrates more on the battle between Hector and Achilles. There are numerous other characters — including Helen, Paris and a couple of Gods — who are all performed by Barlow, the only actor in the piece.

However, "An Iliad" is not a solo theater piece. Also on stage is Kathleen Bowman, a cellist, playing a score she created for the Capital Rep production. Barlow calls the cello "another character in the play." Indeed, Bowman is referred to as The Muse in the play's program.

The script gives wide latitude to what instrument can be used as the Muse and Barlow praises director Margaret E. Hall for choosing the cello. "It has such a human sound," he said. "It's full of breath and offers me a strong emotional connection to relate to while on stage. Kathleen is a wonderful musician. She makes the instrument and her soulful score come alive. It really is like having another actor to play off."

Barlow says he finds himself in awe as to how timely the play is for modern audiences. "The Iliad" was set in the ninth year of the 10-year Trojan War. At the time there did not seem to be an end in sight to the conflict. It's not a coincidence that the United States is involved in conflicts in the Middle East which also seem to have no end in sight.

Barlow says the play speaks to man's propensity to fight wars. "Throughout the history of man there have always been conflicts. Sometimes it's been driven by a hunger for glory; other times it's a search for honor in the eyes of others, and often war has been driven by pure rage. It's a similar story century after century."

He said he hopes the audience response to this story is the same as The Poet's, who at the beginning of the play says:

"Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time."


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