She enters through the loading-dock doors at New Village Arts. Behind her, cars gleam under parking-lot lights and music drifts in from a nearby nightspot. She wears a strange coffee-brown helmet and sweat-soaked military togs, though from which war is hard to tell.
She enters an artist’s studio. Two large canvases, light blue with cloud-like splotches of beige-gold, frame the space, where a table is the only usable piece of furniture. By the time she’s done, she will transform the table into the ramparts of Troy and the funeral pyres of overreaching Patroclus and brave Hector.
She’s called the Poet and must recite a 95-minute version of Homer’s great epic poem, The Iliad, one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization. Like the Ancient Mariner, she must perform the task and quakes at the responsibility.
One reason: the severe physical toll of evoking the ten-year war.
Another: “I knew these boys,” she says. She knew proud Achilles, obstinate Agamemnon, cowardly Paris, and has seen “the face that launched a thousand ships,” Helen of Troy. In effect, she’s a time-traveler.
The La Jolla Playhouse staged Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad a few years ago with a male as the Poet. In an eye-opening switch, New Village Arts cast Linda Libby. And it works just as well, if not better. She does such a remarkable job.
Using a broomstick as a spear and a leather trench coat as armor, Libby storms and clamors, cowers and defies. She deliberately speeds through the text, breathless, as if to reach the end without it pulling her in. But it does. Like Hector, who sheds all Trojan nobility in a lust for Argive blood, at one point she’s so swept up she goes blind with rage, then slowly pulls away, as if fighting an addiction.
Under Jacole Kitchen’s skillful direction, at times Libby sings, accompanied by Gunnar Biggs on a resonant string bass; at others, she speaks in Greek, her body language doing the translation. Throughout, she gives a starkly visceral performance, providing the taste, feel, and passion of the original.
The text offers modern instances of the ancient event. A flaming description of road rage, for example, implicates the audience with urges they might otherwise deny.
All combine to tell the tragic story. Aided by topic headings on the wall, An Iliad moves from the first stirrings in Sparta to the ninth year, where everyone’s fed up, Achilles whines in his tent, and justification for the havoc no longer makes sense. To the point where, as Simone Weil writes in The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, “to be outside a situation so violent as this is to find it inconceivable; to be inside it is to be unable to conceive its end.”
Having a woman play the Poet isn’t radical at all. In fact, it may follow the tradition that blind Homer’s daughter Nausicaa wrote The Odyssey. Robert Graves’s novel on the subject claims she was from a Greek settlement in Sicily.
So New Village Arts’ Poet may be a direct descendant, cursed to recount her father’s poem until wars are no more.
Playing through February 26