'An Iliad' examines poles of human nature

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CHESTER -- A man with a suitcase sits on a bench in a bare space. He has traveled from a city 200 miles from Istanbul, where he has seen men bleeding and women taken by force, body armor broken, vehicles on their sides in the ditches -- and he is driven by compulsion to spread a message. He has heard another man speak, a man who knows how to use anger, and the words have driven him across the world.

The city is Troy.

The man who leads him is Homer.

And the message is a call to compassion.

"An Illiad," Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's adaptation of Homer's epic poem, opens at the Chester Theater tonight.

One man will tell the battle that destroyed Troy with a contemporary voice and contemporary feeling.

"This man has walked through history telling this story, because he is compelled," said director Sheila Siragusa.

"Because this is a story that needs retelling," said Steve Hendrickson, who will tell it.

They find Homer's words from 760 B.C. eerily familiar.

Holding a sword and facing a soldier feet away may feel different from holding a joystick in a bunker thousands of miles from a target. But in a time of gun law debates, Newtown, Trayvon Martin, security alerts and embassy closings, the force of anger feels relevant, immediate and real to them.

"The idea of war and conflict has changed," Hendrickson said. "It used to take a nation to project power and influence. Now it takes one guy with a suitcase."

Hendrickson walks on with his suitcase, not as a terrorist, but as a man who has seen terror and is trying to go on living, like a Marine at the end of his tour, or a poet, or both.

His story explores two poles, two opposite points of human character, he said -- compassion and rage.

"The story allows you to examine your own quotient," he said.

It asks why people so often turn to anger to solve problems, he said, and when they confront problems with compassion and empathy, why they do.

It does not try to answer questions as hard as these, Siragusa said, but shows them, lets people feel them.

They believe it's a story worth telling again in every generation.

"It's a great story," Hendrickson said." People think they know it, but mostly they don't. It's deeper and more compelling."

The people in his "Iliad" repeatedly face a choice.

"I could fight or I could be compassionate," he said, "and being compasisonate is riskier. In every case but one, they tack back toward violence."

The soldiers inside and outside Troy shared a fanatical connection and desire for duty, honor and glory, he said.

The choice is painfully clear as Hector, the son of the king of Troy, finds his wife and infant son at the gate tower, on the wall of the city under siege. His son cries with fright at the sight of "the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest, the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror" -- and his father takes off the helmet and becomes familiar, a man, lifting his son in his arms to kiss him.

"Andromache pressed the child to her scented breast, smiling through her tears. Her husband noticed, and filled with pity now, Hector stroked her gently, trying to reassure her, repeating her name ..."

She has seen her brothers and father die in battle. But the city looks to Hector to defend it, and he leaves her.

Hendrickson heard the warriors, Trojan and Greek, making the same choices and saying, "I would be dishonored. I would look like a coward. Better to die in glory than be weak."

Could Hector have defended his city in any other way?

The tension and the choice remind Hendrickson of Jackie Robinson's in the movie " ‘42." But Robinson chose differently.

"When he came into the Majors, he was told, ‘You cannot fight back. You will be taunted, threatened, maybe attacked, and it will be easy to get angry, but you cannot go there.'

"That is the ultimate courage," Hendrickson said.

"When someone attacks you, they are out of balance," Siragusa said.

The attacker has lost control, she said. To meet an attack without anger is to keep control. History's nonviolent leaders were not passive -- Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. -- they moved millions of people, changed governments, shouted from the rooftops.

"They put the question out there: How are we going to do this -- are you going to kill me?" Hendrickson said.

They demanded to be treated as humans, not as faceless enemies or servants, not as figures or dots on a screen. They demanded to be reckoned with as men.

And they died.

"There's no consoling people that they don't have to be afraid," Siragusa said. "Openness requires more courage."

People try to protect themselves, and protection may conflict with compassion.

"We pretend compassion is an easy answer," she said. "it isn't."

Hendrickson agreed, recalling the gods in the Iliad, calling for vengeance and driving the battle.

"It takes the responsibility off you to say ‘Ares made me go to war,'" he said. "Ares is you."

Take off the flashing helmet, and Hector becomes a man.

"It's harder to be human," Hendrickson said.

If you go ...

What: An Iliad

When: August 15 to 25. Wednesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., Thursday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Where: Chester Theatre, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester.

Admission: $30 weekday tickets, $35 weekend tickets, $10 rush tickets.

Information: www.chestertheatre.org or (413) 354-7770


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