Aquila Theater bills their latest adaptation as Homer's Iliad (Book One), but if you just had flashbacks of stuffy classrooms, rest assured--it's not. It's Peter Meineck's Iliad, a seventy minute version of the first book (Homer had 24), and a hodgepodge of styles. Desiree Sanchez's silent, slow-motion movements mix with Stanley Lombardo's straight-talking, modern translation, and a smoke machine is much abused. Anthony Cochrane's score switches from industrial sounds of aircraft to classic chords, and this goes well with Meineck's stripped stage (a few military-grade crates) and dark, war-tattered uniforms. The tone of the piece changes so often, it's hard to say what it is, but here goes: by sticking to the Iliad (instead of making something new, like Banana Bag & Bodice's comically tragic Beowulf), Meineck has brought back the oral tradition in all its uneven glory.
At the play's start, the six-man ensemble somberly interjects narrative as Chryses begs Agamemnon to release his pillaged Trojan daughter, Chryseis; soon after, as Agamemnon and Achilles face off in a contest of petulance, the ensemble is in the midst of the action, announcing Achilles's thoughts even as they hold him back. By the play's end, the actors are cracking up in Olympus, watching Hephaestus trying to cheer up his mother, Hera, who is jealous of the favor Zeus plans to grant Achilles's mother. They also find time to sing (in Greek) a few drinking songs by the besieged gates of Troy. On second thought, it is a bit like being in a classroom, but only in the sense that every student reads the Iliad with a different spin: what Meineck's done is to push all these voices together, hoping to make real characters out of poetic descriptions.
Where he succeeds best is in the comic milieu, presumably because his actors know how to play that far better than some of the more fantastic "drama." Jay Painter begins the show as a bland father, Chryses, reciting lines--but he comes to life as the sarcastic old warrior, Nestor, and even more so as Zeus, punning on how he can "Hera" his wife coming. The ensemble helps to coax things along, too: Nathan Flower makes for a decently aggravated Agamemnon, a trait that gets some laughs when the cast "nominates" him to play Hephaestus. The drama isn't bad, and John Buxton shows more range to Achilles than that warrior is usually afforded, but it's hard to be serious when a Greek chorus is whispering your every move to the audience.
The one major faltering point of Meineck's Iliad--and it's a make-or-break moment--is that its reliance on stagecraft makes it a very transparent and artificial work. There's no sense of transportation; if anything, there's a constant awareness of the work itself. For some, being surprised by a neat trick--a gas-masked god whispering in Agamemnon's dreams--will be enough. Those awaiting a fuller illusion, however, are bound to be disappointed.
[Update (4/21 @ 11:21 AM): There are a lot of errors in the published reviews of this production, which speaks somewhat to how confusing this sort of stylistic interpretation can be if prior context is required. Taking responsibility for myself, I mistakenly called Achilles Apollo; I regret the error, and have corrected it.]