An Iliad opens with the quiet before the storm. It's clear something is up once you arrive on the ninth floor of the Guthrie Theater. The bay doors to the Dowling Studio are all open, exposing the entire set and house to the lobby area.
The payoff comes a few minutes later, when the elevator doors open and a scruffy, dusty-looking man wearing sunglasses and a carrying a battered suitcase emerges. He quietly surveys the spaces in the lobby and enters the theater.
This is the Poet, as interpreted by actor Stephen Yoakam. Possessing a Homeric beard and world-weary attitude, the Poet is here to tell us a familiar story, one that is thousands of years old but still plays itself out on many battlefields. For the next 90 minutes or so, Yoakam has the audience at his command. Using the power of his voice — with some deft assists from the designers — he unfurls the story of Achilles, Hector, and a singular moment of humanity amid the brutality of the battlefield.
An IliadGuthrie Theater818 Second St. S., Minneapolis612.377.2224; through May 26
The adaptation, crafted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, not only compresses the story into an hour and a half (the Poet ruefully notes at the beginning that he used to sing this particular song for days at a time) but also stretches it to encompass wars that have occurred in the 3,000 or so years since Homer first recited the epic poem.
If you need a refresher: The Iliad is set during a few weeks near the end of the 10-year siege of Troy. So, the start of the war (Helen and her face that launched a thousand ships) and the eventual end (that tricky horse) are alluded to but not actually part of the story. Mainly, the Iliad centers on an Achilles who pouts at first, then rages. After Greek king Agamemnon takes the demigod's lover, Achilles retreats to his tent and ignores the battles around him.
That makes things tough on the Greeks, who are pushed farther back from the gates of Troy. It isn't until Achilles' mate Patroclus is killed on the battlefield — while rallying the troops in Achilles' armor — that the legend returns to the killing fields. Achilles' rage isn't assuaged just by killing Hector. He drags the corpse behind his chariot for days until Hector's father finally comes to the Greek camp to beg for his son's body.
What follows is a legendary moment of mercy, where the rage falls from Achilles in the face of a father's grief. Yoakam makes those moments spellbinding, using all of the work from earlier in the show — building the Poet's character, setting the stage — to craft the heartbreaking scene.
Throughout, Yoakam holds us captivated. The conversational script — only short bits are in verse (and in Greek as well) — makes the engagement between actor and audience easy, but it is Yoakam's skill that keeps our focus through a well-known story. Some of the most riveting moments come when the Poet goes off script. At times, he abandons the story to recount images from other futile battlefields of history, such as World War I. Or, in one harrowing moment, he recites war after war that has been fought since the fall of Troy. Here, Yoakam is at his best, making us feel the weariness and loss as each war is cited.
While Yoakam is the only performer, he's never alone. Set designer Michael Hoover builds an excellent playing area for the actor. It's a Grecian ruin under repair, merging the modern with the ancient and providing excellent texture for the production. Lighting designer Tom Mays helps to set the scene with well-chosen moments of light and dark. Sound and music creator Greg Brodsofske crafts an impressive aural scape that melds with Yoakam's performance.
Director Benjamin McGovern, the creative team, and especially Yoakam work together not only to bring the story of the Iliad to life but to show us little has changed.