NEW YORK — When actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson began developing their theatrical adaptation of Homer’s “The Iliad” in 2005, the United States was embroiled in two simultaneous wars halfway around the world.
Yet the duo never intended their update of Homer’s ancient epic poem, about the brutality of the Trojan War, to be an antiwar jeremiad. Indeed, the collaborators came to the project, “An Iliad,” with differing passions and perspectives about the seemingly insatiable human thirst for violence and destruction.
“I think war is a waste. It is always a waste,” O’Hare says over coffee at a Manhattan cafe, Peterson seated across from him. “I think that our play shows clearly the devastation of war. But that’s never stopped anybody from going into war. Lisa’s point of view is a little different. What she was fascinated by was: What is it in human nature that drives us to violence? Is violence part of our nature? Why do we have this desire for violence inside of us? Is it impossible to get rid of?”
Their idea was to create a solo performance piece that condensed the sprawl of the poem into an intimate, primal work that would use contemporary vernacular spiced with translated poetic verse. The production, directed by Peterson and starring O’Hare, comes to the Paramount Center Mainstage for four performances beginning Saturday, presented by ArtsEmerson and Homer’s Coat, Peterson and O’Hare’s “creative collective.”
“For me, [the play is] not antiwar,” Peterson says. “It’s really an investigation of the human ability and proclivity to fight and the different ways that one is asked to do that. . . . A lot of it is about rage, but it’s not a critique necessarily. It’s just an examination of where rage comes from, and how it acts within us, and how does one deal with it.”
O’Hare is well known for his Tony Award-winning role as the nebbishy accountant who falls in love with baseball in Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out,” and for playing the foppish lunatic vampire Russell Edgington on HBO’s “True Blood.” In last year’s Obie Award-winning New York Theatre Workshop production of “An Iliad,” O’Hare alternated performances with actor Stephen Spinella.
While O’Hare jokingly calls himself a “scattershot activist,” Peterson knows him to be fiercely outspoken and politically engaged — the kind of guy who, before and after the invasion of Iraq, would make his own incendiary antiwar stickers and plaster them around Times Square on his way to perform on Broadway in “Take Me Out.”
“An Iliad,” culled from a touchstone contemporary translation by Robert Fagles, pares back the sweeping story to focus on the battle between rageful, grief-stricken warrior Achilles and prideful Trojan hero Hector, who slays Achilles’s companion, Patroclus. But the 100-minute play, which features a score performed by an onstage bassist, also incorporates the smack-talking showdown between the Greek king Agamemnon and the recalcitrant warrior Achilles; the tragic death of Patroclus, who volunteers to take Achilles’s place in battle and loses his life; and the elderly Priam’s journey across smoldering battlefields to plead with Achilles for his son Hector’s rotting corpse, in order to to give him a proper funeral. Hector’s devoted wife, Andromache, and Helen, the woman whose capture sparked the war, also make appearances.
As Homer does, Peterson and O’Hare use metaphor to convey the emotions and mindsets of these jealous, prideful warriors and hubristic leaders. To help us identify with the rival Greeks and Trojans, who battled to a stalemate during nine years of fruitless fighting, they invoke a prosaic scenario: the stubborn refusal to switch to a faster-moving supermarket checkout line after you’ve been waiting patiently in another line for 20 minutes. The frustration of changing course is too much to bear.
“We want the audience to go, ‘Ah, I know exactly what you’re talking about! I’ve been there. I know what that feels like.’ That’s the key: what it feels like,” says O’Hare. “So when we talk about rage, about being in a car and wanting to smash the car in front of you — someone cuts you off in traffic. That rage — everyone has experienced [that]. We have that in us. That’s not that different from the rage that overtakes a soldier and compels him to kill somebody.”
As a starting point in creating the piece, Peterson and O’Hare videotaped themselves improvising key sections of Fagles’s “Iliad” translation, putting the action into their own words. Other times, Peterson would interview O’Hare as the narrator and ask him questions about different characters in the play. They transcribed those sessions and then rewrote and edited the material.
More than anything, O’Hare says, “An Iliad” raises hard-to-reconcile questions about human nature and the human experience.
“Why are we at war? Why do we fight?” he asks. “What do you do when you are Achilles, and Agamemnon publicly shames you and unjustly takes from you something that you want? What do you do when you are Achilles and your only reason for existence is to achieve glory? From the day you were born, the prophecy has been that you will die young and you will die in glory. So if Achilles doesn’t go out and fight, what is his life for? . . . What do you do as Hector when your city is besieged, but the people besieging you have a right to besiege you? Because your idiot brother stole the wife of one of these people and brought her into your kingdom.”
As O’Hare sees it, we don’t have to look any farther than our own personal and professional lives to understand these larger-scale conflicts.
“If you think about any small fight or feud that you’ve had in your life — how it started and how hard it is to back down from that,” he says. “When you’ve fallen out with a friend, let’s say, and it’s sort of irreparable. If you go back and dissect how it happened, it always seems inevitable that you got to the split that you ultimately arrived at. So if you go back to the core insult and dissect it, could you have diffused it?”
There is, Peterson says, a somberness at the heart of Homer’s swaggering yet mournful epic, which understands the destruction and loss war inflicts on civilizations.
“I guess if there’s any antiwar sentiment,” she says, “it’s an acknowledgment of the cost of war — both in individual human life and also, in a much bigger way, within a culture.”