One-man ‘Illiad’ offers new take on ancient poem

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Is all still fair in love and war? The Milwaukee Repertory Theater explores the history of war with its production of “An Iliad,” a modern take on Homer’s classic epic. The show, directed by John Langs, opens at the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Feb. 25 and runs through March 23.

James DeVita as The Poet in Milwaukee Repertory Theater's  2013/2014 Quadracci Powerhouse production of An Iliad. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Courtesy of Cindy Moran.

James DeVita as The Poet in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2013/2014 Quadracci Powerhouse production of An Iliad. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Courtesy of Cindy Moran.

Actor James DeVita said writers Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare didn’t alter Homer’s work to create the modern version. Instead, they relate the similarities of the story to the problem and destruction of war in today’s society. The soldiers and civilians fighting in the current wars share similar battle experiences to the soldiers from Homer’s time. Likewise, the gods and goddesses who caused the ancient wars are metaphors for the people in power and governments causing the modern wars.

“It really doesn’t change anything,” DeVita said. “I think the best thing to say about that is that it shows how really mankind hasn’t changed in three thousand years when it comes to warfare.”

In the production, DeVita plays the role of the Poet, the only character in the show, who symbolizes war throughout the ages. DeVita said the Poet’s life-long pursuit is to get people to see what war is really like. He tells the story of the Trojan War in a way that not only highlights the heroic figures, but the brutal, horrific reality of war.

“(The Poet) could be anything,” DeVita said. “He could be a soldier, (or) he could be a photojournalist working in Afghanistan. So he is kind of a timeless figure.”

The set, a bombed theater in the midst of a war-torn city, adds to the belligerent tone of the play and gives the audience a striking visual of the bloodshed the Poet describes.

“It looks like the stage was actually hit by a bomb,” DeVita said.

As much as DeVita looks forward to the opening of “An Iliad,” he admits he is a bit intimidated of performing by himself. The only other cast member is cellist Alicia Storin, who accompanies him as his muse and provides the sounds of war.

“Walking out on that stage is the scariest part if the play,” DeVita said.“It’s frightening in a good way. It’s certainly a challenge to be up there by yourself, but at the same time, it’s thrilling too.”

In addition to the nerves of running a one-man show, the rhetoric of Homer’s poetry also proves to be a challenge.

“The language is beautiful and some of the poetry is dense, so I’m trying to communicate that poetry clearly to an audience so they get it and they’re moved by it,” DeVita said. “It’s one of my big jobs.”

Although the Poet is the only character in the show, the audience also plays a key role in the production. DeVita uses a method of acting called direct approach, where he talks to spectators and engages with them in a way that changes each performance.

“A play like this is never the same from night to night,” DeVita said. “You have a blueprint obviously, but the audience is so different every night and the thing that I’m looking most forward to is trying to be with this audience and let them react the way they want to react. Every audience has its own personality, and I’m always a little different everyday too. It’s a challenge to be that open to an audience.”

DeVita said although the title makes it sound like a staged version of a long, ancient Greek poem, “An Iliad” is not what attendees expect.

“I think a lot of people hear, ‘The Iliad’ and think, ‘Really? I’m going to hear ‘The Iliad?”” DeVita said. “But I think it’s a story that the students are going to be amazed at how contemporary the actual Iliad story actually sounds and how it resonates with what’s going on in the world today.”

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