WORDS OF WARS Fraza as The Poet. [Photo by Brian Gagnon]
Like knowing we are going to die, knowing that there are going to be wars is something we can grow inured to. Prompted by our country invading Iraq in 2003, director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare began working on a one-person performance based on Homer’s Iliad, attempting to make our awful human habit real, as so many playwrights have done before.
The result was An Iliad, which the Wilbury Theatre Group is presenting (through February 8) in a vivid production directed by Clara Weishahn.
Billed as The Poet, Matthew Fraza tells a fascinating tale of the tale. By turns serious and humorous, lyrical and conversational, he spins a web around us and the ancient epic poem about the fall of a great city and the last 40 days of the nine-year Trojan War. His wordless Muse is the sonorous soundscape provided by Evan Lunt, high above the stage with his cello.
Striking a dignified pose, Fraza sometimes declaims in ancient Greek, to give us a sense of being there as a poet projecting the narrative across a crowd. Sometimes he stands erect and bellows like a warrior. But mostly he speaks to us calmly, as someone absorbed in conveying an understanding of the 3000-year-old Bronze Age story and its lessons.
Iliad means poem about Ilium, which is Latin for Troy, which historians think was once located across the northern Aegean Sea in what is now Turkey. According to Greek mythology, the war was fought by the ancient Acheans, as the Greeks were known, after the Trojan prince Paris took the beautiful Helen from her husband, Menelaus, king of Sparta.
The Greek gods and goddesses, those hubristic role models, took sides with the mortals. It was Aphrodite, goddess of love, who made Helen fall in love with Paris, a reward for his judging Aphrodite to be the most beautiful, above Athena and Hera.
Fat lot of good any godly rooting did for the Achaeans’ greatest warrior, Achilles, or his fatally loyal friend Patroclus, or Hector, son of Troy’s King Priam, whose slain body Achilles — “addicted to rage,” as the Poet tells us — ended up dragging behind his chariot around the walls of Troy in still-furious victory. (Road rage is the connection to us when the Poet describes Patroclus’s blood lust.)
Yet in this account Hector, like others, is no mere name from mythic history — not after we see him, death imminent, bidding farewell to his wife and baby boy, whom he holds up in the air. He loudly wishes for a future in which he is an even greater a warrior than his father; the millennia are bridged and for a moment we are there.
At the beginning, the Poet explains that for centuries he has wandered the world singing about wars, from ancient Babylon to modern Beirut. “Every time I sing this song, I think it’s the last song,” he says, hopeful and rueful. As he has explained over the years, typically in taverns, what drives the combatants is “pride, honor, jealousy.”