“As God disposes man laughs or weeps” — Sophocles
What’s the last work of art that made you uncomfortable, got you thinking, or maybe even messed you up a little? For me it was probably L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel “The Go-Between,” or Fassbinder’s 1978 film “In A Year of 13 Moons,” the German director’s creative exorcism following the suicide of his partner. Most recently, it was last night’s performance of “An Iliad” at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, a rambling one-man retelling of the Trojan War written by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, directed by Jerry Genochio, and masterfully executed by solo actor Kyle Hatley.
It took more than a few talented people at the Rep to stage such a powerful production, with a plywood set design resembling crashed war ships, innovative musical accompaniment by Raymond Castery (who shares the stage in a non-speaking role), as well as the work of the technicians and producers. But it’s Hatley’s performance that captivates, entertains and terrifies. “Muses!” he bellows toward the back of the stage at the play’s outset, less an invocation than the scream of someone who fears they’ve been forsaken.
Hatley’s character is a nameless Poet, doomed to retell centuries-old war stories, which he intersperses with witty tangents and contemporary analogies (Achilles’ fury is compared to someone who has been cut off by another driver). The storytelling is spirited and athletic, with the Poet leaping around the set, adjusting his volume and pitch to inhabit different moods, events and characters. I (along with much of the audience, I later learned) assumed he was ad-libbing much of the text until he explained in a post-performance chat that each one of the pauses and stutters were written into the script. Hatley inhabits his character so thoroughly, however, that you never would have known it.
As the war story drags on, an intractable weariness sets into its teller — the guilt of someone who came, saw, conquered and has looked back in disgust ever since. As the Poet details the confrontations and brutalities he witnessed among the Greeks during the sack of Troy, the American audience member can’t help but think of accounts of the My Lai Massacre, Abu Ghraib or any of the other dark moments in American military history.
At one moment late in the play, the Poet cuts short his historical narration to list the names of wars and conflicts throughout history, dating from the ancient world to the present day. While listening to (and anticipating) the names of wars, we realize with mounting horror that all the vivid, bloody, heartbreaking details of the Poet’s story are but a tiny fraction of the apparently unending history of human warfare. Hatley’s unflinching, rapid-fire delivery in this scene marks it as a true crescendo in the performance; the vibrating lights and sustained dissonance of Castery’s musical score creating a scene of almost hallucinatory intensity.
As powerful as this scene was, I was maybe even more impressed by a quieter moment in which the Poet gently pushes one of the hanging glass light fixtures, sending it into an elliptical orbit around him as he continues speaking. I kept expecting it to collide with another prop or the actor himself, but it never did. As the light swings harmlessly around him at increasingly tighter angles, the Poet never once pauses to mark his footing or position on stage, almost as if he’s inhabiting a different plane altogether. It’s the kind of quiet intensity and skillful stage movement that makes Hatley’s performance in “An Iliad” so transcendent.
By the time the narrative reaches the episode of the Trojan Horse, the Poet appears unwilling to continue, either because it wasn’t part of Homer’s poem, or because he’s still too sickened by the memory of that infamous deception. That there won’t be a happy ending to this play seems a foregone inclusion, but I would argue that it’s not entirely devoid of hope. Earlier in the play, while recounting Priam’s pleas for Achilles’ to hand over the body of his slain son, Hector, the Poet describes how Achilles miraculously quiets his rage just as it threatens to reach a boiling point. “How did he do it?” the Poet asks, a question no less critical for remaining unanswered. In a world in which mankind is just a plaything of the gods, does he still have the agency to turn away from war and conflict?
Further examination of the play’s themes would require closer study of the text, which I haven’t yet had time to do. But I did leave the theater with the sense that playwrights Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson have found a way to crack open historical drama and make it something immediate and exciting, using modern language and references to create the same sense of catharsis so integral to ancient Greek theater. I also left wondering how I’d gone so long without seeing a performance by Hatley, surely one of Kansas City (and Chicago’s) finest young talents. If you get a chance to attend one of the four remaining performances this weekend, by all means, don’t miss it.