As “An Iliad’’ gets underway, a light bulb is burning on the nearly bare Paramount Center Mainstage. The stage is abruptly plunged into darkness. And then, just as suddenly, a spotlight bursts upon a man, seated upon a suitcase.
He is an ordinary-looking fellow in a long overcoat, a hat, and what appear to be army boots, and he is speaking, curiously enough, in ancient Greek. The man soon switches to English and begins to tell a tale — one, it’s clear, he’s told many times before, and one that, in one form or another, is as old as humanity itself. It’s the story of war.
“Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time,’’ he says wearily.
The reluctant raconteur is played by Denis O’Hare, and the solo performance he proceeds to give over the next hour and a half is nothing short of mesmerizing. “An Iliad,’’ crafted by O’Hare and Lisa Peterson from Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s epic poem, and presented by ArtsEmerson, is a starkly powerful experience that leaves you with not just a sense of the horror and absurdity of war, but also — and this part makes the heart sink — its inevitability.
Why? Because while O’Hare’s narrator vividly brings to life scenes from the Trojan War, especially the climactic battle between Achilles and Hector, the true subject of “An Iliad’’ is mankind’s ineradicable impulse toward violence, an unfathomable yet seemingly bottomless rage that spans eras and continents and cultures. No peace treaty that can fix that.
In one spellbinding scene, O’Hare numbly but relentlessly recites the names of war after war after war, scores of them, underscoring how much of human history has been defined by our attempts to kill one another. It’s reminiscent of that hypnotic sequence in Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia’’ when Gray spoke of the “invisible cloud of evil,” a kind of collective madness that periodically descends upon nations and makes them do terrible things — except that the madness O’Hare describes is a chronic condition.
If “An Iliad’’ sounds like a didactic screed, rest assured that it’s not. Under Peterson’s direction, this is theatrical storytelling at its most vital. O’Hare is spookily persuasive in his evocation of the speed with which combat can turn to frenzied bloodlust, especially in depicting the slaughter of Trojans by the Greek soldier Patroclus while wearing the armor of his friend Achilles. Mark Bennett has composed spare and resonant music that, as performed onstage by bassist Brian Ellingsen, ratchets up the dramatic intensity at key moments while at other times subtly commenting upon the events narrated and depicted by O’Hare.
The vernacular language mixed in with the soaring poetry of “An Iliad’’ collapses any sense of comfortable distance we may feel. O’Hare and Peterson force us to picture the Greeks and Trojans — to see them — not as figures from distant myth but as fundamentally the same as “the boys of Nebraska and South Dakota . . . the twangy boys of Memphis . . . the boys of San Diego, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Antelope Valley . . .’’ who fight our present wars.
The action in “An Iliad’’ unfolds in the ninth year of the Trojan War, with Troy under siege by the Greeks. “Fighting on and off, fighting to the wall and back,’’ says O’Hare. “Greeks win one day, Trojans win the next, like a game of tug-of-war, and nothing to show for it but exhaustion, poverty, and loneliness.’’ Emotions are equally raw and specific in a scene, enacted by O’Hare with harrowing force, in which Patroclus is killed by Hector, a prince and the commander of the Trojan army. Upon learning of the death of his friend, the Greek leader Achilles is driven to a fury of revenge.
Not content just to kill his foe, Achilles drags his dead body by chariot around the walls of Troy while Hector’s mother, father, and brothers watch helplessly. Before he does that, though, Achilles takes a moment to proclaim to his soldiers that “we have won ourselves great glory.’’ But “An Iliad’’ makes abundantly clear that when the subject is war, glory is the very last word we should ever use.