War is a timeless theme in drama, one whose enduring status probably arises out of the fact that in war we're forced to come to terms with our own mortality — the omnipresent prospect of death. "An Iliad," the new one-man show presented by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, retells Homer's epic poem through piecemeal contemporary references illustrating what little has changed over millennia. Its true gift, though, might be in allowing us to hear the story told the way Homer himself would have. The oral storytelling tradition is amazing to witness, given the amount of information one has to memorize. We should all feel lucky that we can listen to this tale in the context of a one-man, one-act play.
The Rep Annex's Black Box stage provides a small and intimate setting. The signs of loss are prevalent, as are the cliched insignias of homelessness: a makeshift home composed of shopping carts, cardboard boxes, etc. Our poet of impeccable memory, I can't help but think, was inspired by a homeless war veteran of the sort we find far too often in American cities. His bomber jacket (which at one point is used to represent Achilles' armor), war-related newspaper clippings, dingy overcoat and booze — which he seems to have conveniently accessible at every end of the stage — all lend authenticity to the stock image of the indigent former combatant that today persists in our culture.
As the Poet, actor Joseph Graves' ability to sustain the audience's attention for two hours in a monologue is impressive. Our poet gestures meaningfully and touches audience members on their shoulders, asking questions, all of it in an effort to convey the immediacy and devastating power of the war experience. Even when our guide loses us with his ancient Greek incantations, he draw us back in with the familiar and contemporary — references to "the boys of Nebraska and South Dakota," in lieu of small Greek city-states. The disjunction between ancient warfare (sparked by missing wives and the intervention of gods) and modern warfare is dissolved during his impersonation of Achilles' unbridled rage over the loss of his cousin Patroclus, or his raspy-voiced King Priam (very Peter O'Toole-like, by the way), pleading for the body of his son, Hector. It's not all serious stuff, of course: With alcohol as his muse, we're treated to a bit of levity (and four-letter words) here and there.
True to the poem, Hector and Achilles are front and center, but I've always found this unfortunate. In the context of a play that essentially highlights the human toll of armed conflict, what do we make of the nameless Trojan civilians who died at the hands of the Greeks bearing wooden equine gifts? We get a description of how beautiful the city of Troy was before it was ransacked, a description in which the poet mentions that the homes were constructed in such a way that the lines between public and private were often muddled. It seemed to be a fitting metaphor for what sometimes happens to the losing side — the general populace will suffer even when the fighting takes place among the elite. One of the most alluring parts of the play is the poet's bravura performance of the haunting list of just about every major war from antiquity to the present, reminding us that in war, names change but the effects remain a constant.