By John Thomason
To a soundtrack of exploding missiles and news dispatches from modern wars, a lone, grizzled man enters what appears to be a bombed-out rampart. The corpses have been removed but the rest of the castle is a mangle of crushed chairs, broken stanchions and strings of unused bullets. This man is Avi Hoffman; he’s dressed like a casual war correspondent from no particular war, a lanyard around his neck and a guitar case slung over his shoulder. He starts muttering to himself in Greek, then kindly asks a front-row theatergoer for the program of the show he happens to be starring in.
So begins the hour and forty minutes of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad, a breathtaking solo show from Boca Raton’s Outre Theatre Company that exhumes Homer’s dramatization of the mythological Trojan War in terms we all can understand. There is colloquial language, modern-day references, video projection and audience interaction – even, occasionally, humor.
To this day, I’ve not read The Iliad. Presumably, this is because I was never assigned it in high school or college, and it always seemed like one of those chiseled-in-marble literary landmarks, like Beowulf or The Inferno, that one doesn’t read voluntarily. There must be a purpose behind all those hours suffering with the gods and warriors, in those 24 roman numeraled books written in dactylic hexameter. Luckily, in this case, knowledge of the source material is beside the point. This, after all, as An Iliad, not The Iliad, and it’s written with the literary laymen in mind.
It starts off slowly and incoherently, with Hoffman, credited simply as “the poet,” stalling for time, burying his own lede. Apparently, the poet is on tour with this whole Iliad thing, and he references previous shows: Alexandria was a tough crowd, but he killed at Gaul. This performance doesn’t appear to be going smoothly; he strums a few ragged bars of a country song on his guitar, then abandons it and very quickly takes to the three bottles of liquor housed in his knapsack, while trying to convey the magnitude of the Trojan War, or the role of the Greek gods in everyday emotions, or something like that.
Struggling for a connection – with us, or with some higher power – he tries repeatedly to summon his muses, but his cries fall on deaf ears.
Eventually, though, aided by the alcohol, our host manages to find his footing as a storyteller, and the result is absolutely spellbinding. Adopting a dozen or so voices – for Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Hermes, Patroclus, et al, as well his own, objective narrator – Hoffman elucidates Homer’s epic for us in propless but vivid details: a graphic novel come to life in our imagination, a Cliff’s Notes Iliad complete with analysis of the text. Part enthusiastic schoolteacher, part desperate messenger of mythological mayhem in a world overrun by real war, Hoffman’s performance oscillates between complete command of his historical subject and anguished aphasia, often breaking down from the sheer intensity of the harrowing scenes.
Hoffman is no stranger to one-man shows, having penned a trilogy of them for himself, beginning with his award-winning Too Jewish? No solo show could rightfully be called “easy,” but this play is in another league, an impossibly demanding exercise in memorization and endurance, directed imaginatively by Skye Whitcomb. In a calorie-burning performance, Hoffman runs Sisyphean circles around the stage, bounds steps, balances on planks of wood, dodges invisible spears, pounces on his victims like a feral animal, and dies a couple of times. In the process, he runs an emotional gamut, exuding the joy of victory, the absurdity of war, the rage of revenge and the bloodshed of its result.
He fills his oration with pregnant pauses, and there’s always a sense that maybe the next line has slipped his mind. But of course not – he’s simply too tormented to go on, or he’s waiting for words that never come, because no mere words can appropriately convey the brutality of infants smashed into mush or corpses dragged through war zones until they are no longer recognizable. Hoffman’s work here is, in a word, flawless – the best I’ve seen him in my eight years as a theater critic.
Outre’s An Iliad is a minimalist show only to a point; it swims feverishly in theatrical artifice. Stefanie Howard’s lighting design is a rainbow of emotional connection, bathing the stage in a blood-red whenever a god gets angry, basking Hoffman in a triumphal golden glow when appropriate and employing a chilly blue for a death scene. Danny Butler’s soundscape contributes just the right amount of clashing swords, crashing waves, howling winds and echo effects without distracting us from Hoffman’s performance. And Sean McLelland’s scenic design is a desiccated playground of discarded and decaying material, abstract enough to suggest any particular war.
Which is really the point of An Iliad, after all. War is war is war, and it really sucks for everyone involved, whether it’s mythological Greek warriors, combat troops in World War II or rebels in the current Syrian Civil War. In the play’s centerpiece, a rapid-fire audiovisual montage rattles off the names of every war in history, with images to back them up and Hoffman clutching his head an agony with the name of each decimated nation. It’s an exhilarating example of pure theater and this show’s icing on its emotional cake.
If, like me, you were disappointed in Outre’s initial offering, The Wild Party, last fall, don’t miss this one; it marks this company’s emergence as a major player in the South Florida theater community.
An Iliad runs through April 21 at Mizner Park Studio Theatre, 201 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $20-$30. Call (954) 300-2149 or visit outretheatrecompany.com.