“An Iliad”: Tale of War, With a Modern Twist
Our troubles coping with the COVID pandemic have stretched beyond the one-year mark. But that’s a short blip of time compared to the arduous ordeal of relating conflict, rage, war, and more over three millennia — with no end in sight.
Such is the plight of the storyteller in An Iliad, the modern-day adaptation of Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War and the great fighters Achilles and Hector. The bard is tasked with sharing his tale with a modern audience, mashing up references with wars throughout the ages with the ancient story of Greeks and Trojans. It uses poetry, prose, humor and stirring accounts of rage and its aftermath — even live music, composed and performed live by Santa Barbara Symphony Cellist Jonathan Flaksman— to share the experience from multiple perspectives.
Ensemble Theatre’s production of playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare adaptation of Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s classic also marks something of a resurrection, as An Iliad represents the first-time audiences can watch live theater since March 2020 — albeit only through video streaming.
John Tufts returns to ETC after appearing in The Invisible Hand and his award-winning turn in the one-man show I Am My Own Wife, once again serving as all the characters in a piece that vividly drives home the timelessness of mankind’s compulsion toward violence. ETC’s artistic director Jonathan Fox helms the performances that take place on the stage of The New Vic, with each of the five performances airing live.
Fox and Tufts took a rehearsal break last weekend to talk about the play over Zoom.
Q. What drew you to want to produce — and act — in An Iliad?
Fox: From the technical approach, I wanted to find something that I thought would be its own theatrical experience without an audience, that would work as a video. But I knew from the get-go that I wanted the performances to be live, not recorded. So, the actor had to address the audience. I had read An Iliad 10 years ago, and John had mentioned it to me several years ago as well. I went back to it and realized it could work. It’s such an unusual piece and I wanted to see how we could approach it.
Tufts: I first encountered the play a few years ago and fell in love with it immediately. I was so impressed with how much of that massive text they were able to incorporate, somatically and literally, into the play. It’s cool because it intersperses the verse text of Homer with their own very political prose text. They weave those things together so cleverly where sometimes you can’t tell the difference. Other times they make it deliberately apparent as when a character breaks the verse to draw a connection between 3,000 years ago and now with anachronistic inclusions.
Fox: The two people who adapted the poem focus on the very human aspects that lead us to keep waging war over and over and over again. It is meant to be the poet, Homer, coming in to talk to a contemporary modern audience as if he’d traversed centuries. He’s fully aware that he’s talking to a modern audience — and so updates some of the references — in the same way that Homer was talking to his contemporaries by reciting this poem over and over again.
Tufts: This guy has been sort of doomed to wander the earth and tell this poem. It’s imperative that he makes a connection with the audience. So, within the first four lines of text, he breaks it down and says, “Look I got a hard job here relating this ancient text to you guys but stick with me.” He’s trying to connect which is why he very literally conjures the muse to inspire him. He’ll draw a connection between towns that would have existed in ancient Greece with places we’re familiar with, like Goleta or Lompoc. When he talks about naming the dead, rather than go through a list of distant sounding Greek names, he’ll point to soldiers who died on the battlefield in World War I and say that these were their stories. Even to conjure up the emotion of rage — he’ll ask, “What sets you off?”
Even though you’re wearing a mask, I can see how animated you are just talking about the play. That leads me to ask about how you change characters in a one-man show like this. What’s the mix of gift to craft to luck?
Tufts: I don’t know about gift, but I do understand craft because it requires a lot of work. You have to really just go through the grind. This text is long, and the contemporary part is so idiosyncratic that getting all of those word repetitions and beats that were written very specifically for one of the playwrights to perform is considerably more difficult than with I Am My Own Wife. I like to start all rehearsal processes off book, to be as prepared as possible so that the director and I get to start on the same level and then go even further. So, I spent three solid weeks before rehearsal began just memorizing the script.
Fox: From a director’s point of view, it’s the most amazing gift for an actor to be so well-prepared coming in. As long as they’re flexible, which John is.
I was just thinking that playing a lot of characters is really just one step from what a reader does with a novel when they’re imagining each character’s voice and actions. Does that make any sense?
Tufts: It does, and here’s why – as an actor, it’s always my goal to be as good as I was when I was five. That’s when we’re all amazing, partly because we’re learning how to lie, but it’s also when we commit so deeply and so fully to our imaginations that nothing can interrupt it. I watch my seven-year-old son play in the backyard and he’s all in being this guy, then someone else and responds to me that way. It’s very natural. That commitment to an absurd storyline is exactly what we want to do as actors (and) as adults. I want to perform in a way where it’s both natural and also completely satisfies my imagination.
In this production, John, you also get to interact with a cellist live on stage who takes on the role of the muse through music. How is that for you?
Tufts: My voice is a baritone, so it’s nice to have that timber come in and mingle, but more crucially it’s that music is the closest thing we have to a muse nowadays. A song can transport you to when you first heard it, and just the pitch, the vibrations, can force our mind to unlock itself a little. So, it’s a brilliant device.
Fox: We first met Jonathan over Zoom, and he was unshaven and had a wool cap on that made him look a little bit homeless. That was the concept that John and I had about his character, like he was a street poet. So, it made it even more that the musician and the poet could be seen as doppelgangers, the muse is a reflection of the poet who conjured him up. It really adds another element of theatricality to have a musician on stage.
“The two people who adapted the poem focus on the very human aspects that lead us to keep waging war over and over and over again.”
— Jonathan Fox,
artistic director at ETC
This is the third time you are working together at ETC. What makes the relationship work? What’s the connection or commonalities?
Tufts: I had a thrilling time doing I Am My Own Wife here, and then Jonathan and I really got to know each other on Invisible Hand. That play is just relentlessly heavy, but Jonathan has a really good eye for where things can lighten up, where humor can exist, whether it’s through irony or characters just being aware of their own humor. When you’re exploring a play that touches on themes of grief and rage, having somebody who’s good at finding the humor really helps. And he’s got such a clear eye for theatricality and how to move around the space.
Fox: We had a get-together with donors to talk about the show via Zoom, and John said that the whole play is very much like a piece of music, like a score. My job is almost like a conductor who brings out certain tempos or certain tones or emphasis, which I agree with. It’s John’s job to embody it. But if I’m hearing something from outside or being a little more attentive because I’m seeing it in the moment and point out where a section needs to be quieter or more impassioned — John is really very professional and very talented at picking up things very quickly. What I ask for will be there the next time we go through it. So, in a sense, we’re partners in trying to get this score to a certain place together.
Tufts: Trust is built through clear communication. John explains what he’s trying to communicate really clearly, so I can see it in my head and get a sense of how it would feel in my body. Trust gets established right there.
What makes An Iliad right for Santa Barbara right now? What should people take away?
Fox: There’s a lot of violence or imagined violence in the play, but there are moments of crushing beauty. It got me choked up because there’s the connection between characters. And the cathartic moment in both the poem and adaptation is a burial, a letting go of grief, of allowing yourself to breathe out, and open yourself up to the next chapter.
Tufts: We’ve had a year where we’ve been deprived of the glorious art of theater. I’m so excited that we get to leap back in this way with such a pure expression — one guy in a theater talking to people and telling a story like this — and pure elemental storytelling. So, they can take away whatever themes they want.