Outre’s An Iliad electrifies the stage

by Jesse Leaf

This isn’t THE Iliad, it is AN Iliad, and what an Iliad it is. Avi Hoffman delivers an electrifying performance as a hardened war correspondent covering the Trojan War, which turned out to be one war too many.  After he reports on the outsized characters in the Greek epic who die outsized deaths in outsized battles, he puts that conflict in historic context, reeling off the wars mankind has fought through the ages. Soon, he crosses that dangerous line separating his humanity from objective observer.  It is a devastating onstage moment as Hoffman almost physically shrinks under the onslaught of our insane and bloody history, crying out not for the unfathomable waste of people and treasure, but for the individual kids from small towns and large cities who have lost their future and their contributions to humanity. Just your everyday youth erased by forces bigger than themselves.

The intertwining of the abattoir of war with ancient Greek beliefs is brilliant. Why are wars fought? In fear that the blame would be laid at the doorstop of the ruling elite, the Greeks invented a panoply of imperfect gods – jealous, thoughtless, envious, petty – and dumped the blame on them. We humans are pawns in their games – and games they actually are to the gods who plant seeds of discontent and then sit back and watch the fun, taking one side or the other, in a sort of cosmic video game. This is a much more interesting explanation of the dynamics of civilization than any we’ve ever come up with.

To backtrack, Hoffman plays the part of The Poet, a wandering minstrel who tells the story of Troy (also called Iliam, thus the title) and Greece, and the protracted and devastating war between them. The Poet is clothed in the modern dress of a journalist, with khaki pants and indentifying ID cards hanging from his neck. His stage is an area outside the walls of Troy, a set artfully designed by scenic designer Sean McClelland.  There is untold history in this set; flanked by two massive walls is the discarded effluvium of war – cartridge cases, gas containers, cable spools, splintered wood mixed with pieces of destroyed furniture, and an old radio. The future is the past as we are lead to the conclusion that war knows no cessation, it is an unbroken continuum.

This great maelstrom of past and present conflict is further reflected in the play’s constant melding of time to make a point. Hoffman’s assimilation in a dual time milieu is so complete that when he emphasizes some point or another using modern examples, we are acceptingly transported, drawn into the dual milieu effortlessly. So we immediately understand when he likens the inner rage and blood-lust of a Greek warrior to what we feel on the highway when we are cut off by a lunatic driver, or when somebody on the supermarket line cuts in. We are all capable of homicidal rage, whether we are defending a walled city in ancient Greece, or living suburban lives in Ft. Lauderdale.

Without so much as a mock helmet or spear, Hoffman creates in your mind’s eye the sights, sounds, and even the smells of an ancient battlefield, suddenly making war a reality, a close personal experience. The idea is to build a relatable empathy for the moment when the narrative is backed by a series of projected background photographs of war victims at the play’s searingly dramatic conclusion. We graphically see that the child in a Syrian hospital is brother under the skin to a Greek warrior who fought and died in the dust of a battlefield three millennia ago.  This, my friend, is theater incarnate.

That said, An Iliad is not so much a political anti-war message, as an argument that blood conflict is built into our DNA, exactly like the transference of blame to the Greek gods who control us as a way of passing time. For if the megaheroes of Homer flail helplessly before the gods, what fault can we find in our daily battles with people who exhibit sociopathic acts with seeming unconcern or, worse, pride? Homer’s warriors are bogged down in hubris, by definition a destructive fault, but it is an engine of action without which there would be no Iliad. But also no war.

A solo show makes special demands on a theater company. It has to maintain interest with few aides from cast, scenery, lighting, sound. I give five stars to Outre’s talented cast of backstage staff: Director Skye Whitcomb choreographed Avi Hoffman’s movement between and around the castoffs of war with fluid grace. Sound designer Danny Butler finessed a background that was this close to subliminal and so powerfully effective. Stefanie Howard’s lighting was ever-changing with split-second timing and a lot more complicated than she will get audience credit for. So here’s credit.

You owe it to yourselves and your relatives and your friends to gather together and see this production – you will not soon forget it.