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The Poet, dressed in a tattered wool jacket sewn with military insignia and wearing an unraveling knit hat on his head, roars in Greek, "Meh nin ah!" Rage!
And thus opens "An Iliad," not the one you read in high school, but a contemporary version of Homer's epic poem, told by one man, in our case the actor Joseph Graves.
Graves will be making his 12th appearance (he most recently played Mark Rothko in "Red") in a production at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre when "An Iliad" opens Friday, Feb. 26, in The Rep's 120-seat Black Box Theatre. The Rep is celebrating both its 40th anniversary and its first season in the Black Box.
A refresher on Homer's "Iliad," said to be the oldest story in Western literature: The abduction of women — Helen by Paris and Briseis by Agamemnon — and the anger of the men who've lost them drives the Trojan War. To tell the story, Graves assumes the roles of many of the principals in Homer's "Iliad": the cowardly Paris, the conceited Agamemnon, sometimes tender and doomed Hector. The audience will see in the tale, which Graves will tell in 105 passionate minutes, certain universalities about war, the foolishness of causes, the selfishness that drives conflict.
Graves is lean, his voice is ringing, and he has a certain haunted look in his eyes, which is perfect for the role of The Poet.
"I will come in after the audience is seated," Graves described the opening of the play, "and see that people have invaded my space," his space including a pile of blankets under a tarp of some sort, littered with bottles of booze and other detritus. He is, like many veterans, homeless.
At a signal from the Gods, our Poet, doomed to immortality and the Gods' demand that he repeat the story of the Trojan War over the centuries that have passed since the abduction of Helen and the beginning of bloodshed, will reluctantly begin to speak.
The audience, in risers on either side of a long, narrow stage, will be only feet away from the Poet as he narrates his tale. "It's very intimate," Graves said, the right setting for the beautiful and harrowing tale rewritten for contemporary contemplation by playwrights Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson. He'll be eye to eye with members of the audience at times, drawing them into the story, Graves said, like the storyteller at a campfire.
The epic is, at its core, about "the internal war we all have," Graves said. "There's some evidence that Homer [hoped to convey] it was not political decisions, but rage in our own lives" that makes men fight.
The play — as acted by Graves — is so compelling, Bob Hupp, The Rep's producing artistic director said, that "in rehearsal I'm always interested in what's going to happen next," though of course he knows it by heart.
It is a rigorous role, one Graves has performed in Portland and Syracuse
This is not a pro-war play or an anti-war play. But, it is about war, and will include "Arkansas Stories of War," six "talkbacks" with local veterans telling their own stories, after performances Feb. 25 and 27 and March 2 and 4. The Rep has worked with the area veterans organization ARVETS to enlist men and women in discussions to be moderated by Just Communities of Arkansas. One of those vets is Nicole Hart, the director of ARVETS, who served with the 39th Infantry Brigade during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004 and 2005. She's scheduled for an afternoon talk — unless her baby, due any day, comes.
"One of the biggest challenges we face is miseducation" about veterans, "so people connecting with the life of a veteran, the seriousness of war, how that affects lives, this is an opportunity to really hear from that perspective," Hart said. In that way, she said, people will "more closely connect with the veteran population."
Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin will also take part, but is yet to be scheduled.
The play, which is being sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, will be performed at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday through March 5, and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28. Tickets are $25 for one or $40 for two. Pay What You Can nights are Feb. 24 and 25, and there will be a reception after opening night Feb. 26.
"An Iliad" will be followed by yet another one-man show, "Bill Clinton Hercules," which will run March 24-26. The Black Box Theatre is at 518 Main St., cater-cornered from the Rep.
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