I Hope It's the Last Time

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

When you walk into the Broad Stage for An Iliad, it feels a bit like you've caught them during a tech rehearsal. It doesn't look like there's a set, just the typical assemblage of theater equipment: a lighting cart, some rehearsal furniture, a ladder.

Then after a blackout, we discover the actor Denis O'Hare bathed in a distant white light. He's singing, or is it intoning, Greek. It's as if you've stumbled on some mysterious antiquated ritual: a bit like encountering an urn at the Getty. You might not be able to make it all out, but it's undeniable that there's a rich history and a secret world here.

Then, just as quickly as the Greek began, it vanishes. Mr. O'Hare begins enchanting us, for there's really no other word, in thoroughly modern language about an ancient battle: the battle for Troy.

The sly conceit is that Mr. O'Hare is a travelling poet in dusty great-coat and hat with a threadbare holey sweater, a bit like one of Beckett's tramps has been conscripted to share with us this yarn. He says, "in Mycenae once I sang for a year" and "every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time," a sentiment we only fully appreciate later.

There's an intriguing dichotomy. In one minute he's beseeching the Muses to help him enact this ancient rite and in the next his language, his approach feels like a great bar story - like stumbling across some exceptional character in a dive bar who'll amaze you with where he's been. In fact, it's a slug of some dark liquor he discovers in his tattered suitcase that finally get's the story rolling and the muse to appear - in the form a virtuosic double-bass player who underscores this Iliad.

The alchemy that Mr. O'Hare and director Lisa Peterson perform is to not only resurrect Homer's epic tale of war and rage but to remind us how undeniably powerful a good story can be.

The remarkable balancing act is having one foot in the past and the other in an almost casual present. You can feel it in the language: at one moment grand and lyrical in the next so colloquial you wonder if Mr. O'Hare has forgotten his lines. It's like the set itself, that at first seemed random and unconsidered, only to reveal it was hiding in plain sight. Or the lighting design that appears to be just whatever was in the air but actually embraces not only the architecture of the theater but also the architecture of the story. This is a group of artists so adept they make the virtuosic seem like a casual improvisation.

If you're not already convinced that this is a show you miss at your own peril -- Mr. O'Hare's performance is an hour and 40 minute tour de force. Without giving away too much -- he even makes sense out of Homer's litanies -- delivering the poignant reminder that what we'd like to think of as ancient barbarism is all too present in our own battles.

An Illiadonly plays for two more weeks, until February 2 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Banner image: Joan Marcus