Hans Altwies wants to tell you a story.
It'ês Homer'ês Iliad, the oldest story in Western European literature: set three millennia ago in the last year of a long Greek siege of Troy, on the west coast of modern Turkey. Is the Iliad a tragedy of anger? Does it lament a lapsed golden age of Ionic imperialism? Is it an anti-war polemic, or was Homer simply a pre-incarnation of gore-addled Quentin Tarantino?
Denis O'êHare and Lisa Peterson have thoughtfully addressed these questions in their outstanding adaptation, which features Altwies in its premiere staging; you can hear him recount the tale at Seattle Repertory Theatre through May 16.
Rarely in the field of contemporary theatre have so few done so much with so little. A single actor, a battered suitcase, a few backstage accoutrements sweep us through ninety swift minutes without a break. A decade ago, Chicago director Mary Zimmerman mounted a dazzling theatrical version of the Odyssey at the Rep; she packed her stage with choreography and color. It'ês satisfying to see Homer'ês work approached from the opposite extreme, with equally felicitous results.
The stories of the Trojan War were spoken and sung long before they were written down, yet today Homer'ês epics are rarely staged: too long, too dense, too distant. The Iliad has difficult bits — gruesome slaughters, tedious catalogues — but this new production finds simple ways to elucidate and embrace the material. It proves again that Homer can be successfully performed.
Zimmerman'ês Odyssey was stylized, but it was still traditionally presentational theatre. The narrator in this Iliad delivers his lines instead as a bard: directly to the crowd. Actors, when they break the fourth wall and bring the audience into the drama, tend to speak toward that audience without actually speaking to them. But Altwies engages us bravely with his passion and compassion as he lays out the epic parade of wrath, war and ransom. He speaks as an eyewitness; since Homer lived several centuries after the Trojan War, this narrator seems to be not Homer but rather a kind of theatrical Odysseus: a nameless character in the tradition of the Ancient Mariner or Wandering Jew, fated to tell his story through the ages.
The Iliad has had many heroic translators: Chapman, Hobbes, Pope, Cowper, Butler, Lattimore, Fagles. Theatre direction is itself a kind of translation, in which the director parses the script to uncover and interpret its grammar of emotion and relationships. This crafty production translates well; like the textual translations, it confronts the state of mind which impels men to kill one another and drag the corpses around in the dust.
The story of the Iliad has had another recent translation — a novel, Ransom, by David Malouf — and lapsed classicist Caroline Alexander has also published an acclaimed interpretation. The Rep'ês production is timely, then, as well as deft.
If you go: An Iliad, Tuesdays-Sundays through May 16, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, 206-443-2222. Tickets cost $15-$59 and are available at the box office or online.