Throw out the tattered copy of the Iliad you were forced to read in sophomore English. With Cleveland Play House’s Jan.12 premiere of An Iliad, Homer’s epic tale of the Trojan War gets stripped down to a 100-minute production on an almost-empty stage with just two performers: an actor and a cellist, both women.
This decidedly intimate portrayal of the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans was specifically designed to bring theatergoers up close and personal to the trauma of war.
“This spare aesthetic of the staging gives everyone in the theater more space to search their conscience and imagination to find a way out of violence,” says co-director Tarah Flanagan, who also serves as the show’s sole actor.
Published in 2012, An Iliad explores war’s many faces, portraying epic suffering as well as the beauty of human bonds born from conflict.
Although the plot centers around a 3,000-year-old mythological war, it addresses potent questions, from how a society treats its veterans to what becomes of those displaced by violence. The inventive retelling also blends in some contemporary language with translations of Homer’s original poetry.
But certain traditions remain. The actor and cellist — or Poet and Muse — evoke Homer’s storytelling contemporaries, bards who traveled from village to village sharing tales of heroism and treachery using nothing but their voices and sometimes an instrument.
That those bards happen to be women, telling a story traditionally told by men, is of course another modern innovation, one that feels profound and overdue in the era of #MeToo.
“After the [Brett] Kavanaugh [Supreme Court] hearings, a woman came up to me to note how amazing it was to see a woman onstage with the freedom to express rage,” says Flanagan. “Contrary to what we’re often told, the world won’t actually fall apart when women express a range of emotions.”