At The New York Theatre Workshop there’s a demonstration of theatrical contrast the like of which you may only ever see this once in your lifetime. Two actors alternate performing the same one-man script, under the guidance of the same director—but they are only cosmetically in the same production. They are Denis O’Hare and Stephen Spinella performing An Iliad, which, as the title suggests, is an adaptation of Homer’s Iliad (using the Robert Fagles translation as source).
Each plays a self-professed “singer” (somewhat curiously identified in the program as “The Poet,” though clearly neither is actually, even symbolically Homer; the term is used loosely to mean reciter, one who bears historical chronicles from place to place) who has arrived to tell a tale he loves and hates, of grandeur and bloodshed, each uses the same space and props, each has a relationship of sorts with a cellist on a catwalk high and to the left, who provides musical background, commentary and even special effects. And of course each performs the same script. But there the common touchpoints end.
For the interpretation of each is as different as can be; they enter differently, wear different costumes, strike different attitudes, enact the story’s characters differently, employ different staging, inflection, build…even operate under a different lighting scheme. Each even has a somewhat different relationship to the cellist who, though he is the same musician, wears a different costume for each singer he accompanies and likewise alters aspects of his performance to match the interpretation at hand.
Spinella’s poet seems sort of a traveling academic; neatly but informally attired, he’s in a vest and shirtsleeves. He’s a man who always has access to irony, who alternates between wry commentary and stentorian grandeur.
O’Hare’s is a small man, quieter, entering in a long pea coat, ruffled and haunted. He gets into performance mode too but it costs him; he’s too attuned to the tragic flaws of silly humans and wrathful gods. It should be noted here: O’Hare is also the co-adapter of the script).
Each actor performs what is, in effect, his own version of the show, with no single moment beholden to the other’s interpretation (indeed, both were created separately in two earlier regional productions). Director and co-adapter Lisa Peterson has allowed each to follow his own bliss. It’s impossible to choose the better experience.
If there’s anything that keeps An Iliad from being ideal, it’s that the authors haven’t taken into account a principle of contemporary fiction writing related to point of view; that one must not switch character perspective within a single scene lest one confuse the reader. (That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but it’ll do for now.) The confusion can also affect the spoken word, as an actor gets caught up in action and rhythm. Too often, the narrative switches point of view without warning or transition or “doublespaced” pause, and it takes a moment (or more) to realize we’re seeing things from another character’s point of view. Even though the show represents but a portion of The Iliad, the story is complex enough to require that kind of fine tuning—and I hope the authors attend to it, because it will make the piece even more remarkably powerful. (I saw both performances on the same Sunday and it was only the second time through that I understood everything; not because one actor was any clearer than the other, nor because of the repetition, but because, being determined not to miss any continuity a second time, I forced myself to listen very much harder…and that’s when I understood why the potential for confusion exists in the first place.) Indeed, Homer isn’t as scrupulous about POV, but he wrote in ancient times, before there were even such things as novels; and this kind of detail represents where adaptive authors must dare to consider themselves better than the original author. Now-acclaimed crime writer Jim Thompson spent most of his living career toiling in the arena of paperback originals written hastily for quick money. The recently departed mystery/caper writer Donald E. Westlake adapted one of those novels, The Grifters, for film. It was a tremendously faithful script, yet it smoothed over certain rough spots toward a more cohesive through-line. Westlake told me he considered the screenplay, “The second draft Thompson never got to write.” And so with An Iliad. The authors need to improve on Homer. (And his translator.)
I hasten to add, though, this should in no way seem a deal-breaker. An Iliad is striking and remarkable. To see either performance is a privilege. To see both is the grandest, most exhilarating education in contrast and making material your own.
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