In ‘An Iliad,’ Denis O’Hare is a one-man army

Denis O'Hare in "An Iliad."
Denis O'Hare in "An Iliad."

When actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson wrestled Homer’s “The Iliad” into a one-act solo performance, they pared the epic poem about the 10-year Trojan War into about 100 minutes of stage time.

But since the show's 2012 debut, there's one portion that keeps stubbornly inching forward in length.

There’s a point where O’Hare’s character, identified only as Poet, spouts off a list of about 160 wars, in roughly chronological order. The list begins with the Peloponnesian War. It ends with . . . well, that’s the thing.

"We used to end with Iraq," O'Hare says. "We've since added Syria and Yemen."


O’Hare will perform “An Iliad” for four performances at the Paramount Center, starting Wednesday. It’s the same stage where the show began its touring life in 2013, after a well-received New York run that earned a special citation from the Obie Awards the year before.

“An Iliad” is a very free adaptation from Robert Fagles’s 1990 translation. Only isolated bits are performed in his rendering of the original verse; most of it is performed in vernacular language, with some bits of ancient Greek thrown in. It’s a mix of straight storytelling and reflections upon the act of storytelling itself.

O’Hare and Peterson maintain that “An Iliad” is not an antiwar polemic. But it is concerned with interrogating the value of war and measuring its impact.

Since that initial ArtsEmerson presentation of the show, O'Hare has performed it around the world: Chile, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Romania, Australia, New Zealand, China. Peterson travels with it, re-conceiving its spare staging for each venue.

That list of wars from antiquity to today tends to land like a gut punch. So too a moment when the Poet lists the many locations from which the soldiers participating in the Greek siege of Troy had come. The play originally added a series of American cities, driving home the sense of war as a universal endeavor. Now, when he performs it abroad, O'Hare delivers that section in the language of his host country, adding a list of local locations.


O'Hare is attuned to how moments in the show land differently around the world — such as when he was in Cairo, performing the parts that are spoken in the voice of Greek military leader Agamemnon.

"I was very aware of the idea that I’m playing a strong military leader who will brook no dissent — and that’s their president. You’re talking to an audience that’s experiencing that very thing. And they’re not dumb, they can hear that message," he says.

“An Iliad” has become like a warm but weathered coat the Tony Award-winner slips into between other theater projects and appearances on TV shows including “American Horror Story,” “The Good Wife,” and “True Blood,” and films including “Milk” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” (He’ll appear in Joss Whedon’s upcoming science fiction series for HBO, “The Nevers.”)

In fact, O'Hare and Peterson dubbed their production company Homer's Coat. Much as the epic poem attributed to Homer is believed to be the product of centuries of oral tradition, the creators of "An Iliad" see their piece as part of a shared tradition among theater artists.

"We had developed the idea that our character was one of many beings in the universe who could put on the coat and become Homer — that Homer is a collective idea, not a single person," Peterson says, over the phone. "The idea that anyone could do it is pretty key for us. It’s become primary."


The years of touring the show have deepened another element. Along with a sense of frustration about the horrors of war, the Poet voices ambivalence about his trade. Put simply, he’s tired of reliving the bloodshed. Near the top of the show, he declaims: “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”

"The text doesn’t say that he’s cursed," Peterson says, "but Denis and I, when we think about it, he’s blessed and he’s cursed. He’s a figure that can't die. He lives forever — forever sort of turning up in a theater somewhere in the world, and he has to tell the story again."

As he himself keeps turning up in theaters around the world to perform "An Iliad," O'Hare is very aware of the intersecting layers at play.

He and Peterson started conceiving the show in 2005. At this point they've worked on "An Iliad," on and off, for longer than the Trojan War itself.

"I felt too young for the part when we first started. I felt I was play-acting as an old man. And now I’m 57 and I’m doing the thing and I’m like: I’m not acting anymore! I don’t want to stand up. I am tired," O'Hare says. "The play is getting more comfortable in my skin."


And it keeps getting a little longer, war by war.

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyDGoodwin.


Presented by ArtsEmerson. A Homer’s Coat Production in association with Octopus Theatricals. At the Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Nov. 20-24. Tickets $25-$95, 617-824-8400, www.ArtsEmerson.org