The stage doesn’t fill with a cast of thousands.
“An Iliad,” the mesmerizing theater piece that opened Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, manages to create the sights and sounds, the epic sweep and tragic immediacy of the Trojan War in the performance of a single actor.
In this brisk, often harrowing 100-minute play by director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare, based on Homer’s poem (translated by Robert Fagles), the clash is seen through the eyes of a battle-weary Poet (the great Henry Woronicz) charged with telling an oft-told tale.
Woronicz, occupying a nearly bare space on the Rep’s Thrust Stage, makes an affecting storyteller.
Grizzled, yet still vibrant, he drinks, rages and forces himself to remember the incidents leading up to the sacking of Troy. As he describes the key players – a simpering Helen, the preening Paris, a raging Achilles – the triumphs, glories, moments of humor and horrific acts of brutality pile up like so many bodies.
Woronicz recounts the war’s famous incidents, including Helen’s abduction, the death of Patroclus and the battle between Hector and Achilles. In rich language – and pointed asides – he makes us feel each clanging sword, each fatal wound, each cry of pain from the vanquished.
Peterson stages the action brilliantly, with Rachel Hauck’s barren set, bathed in harsh lighting by Scott Zielinski, yielding a pitiless backdrop.
Musician Brian Ellingsen, stationed on a balcony above the stage, coaxes martial sounds, elegiac melodies and eerie effects (compositions by Mark Bennett) from an amplified double bass and assorted percussion instruments.
As he makes his way through the Trojan War, the Poet enters a timeless realm. Suddenly the telling is personal. Listing the names of the dead – and their young ages – Woronicz appears overwhelmed by grief. Describing the chaos of battle, he freezes in a pose that suggests post-traumatic stress disorder. Repeatedly, he breaks from the narrative to ask the audience, “Do you see?”
The audience can’t help but see. As “An Iliad” comes forward to encompass the battles of our time, the production acquires a devastating power. “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time,” says Woronicz. In this tale of impossible feats, that’s the one that never seems likely.