By Michael Aushenker
When “An Iliad” reaches The Broad Stage on Saturday, the opening will mark the culmination of a nine-year creative conversation between actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson. For readers of Homer’s original, that’s one year shy of the Trojan War.
Based on Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s “Iliad,” Peterson’s take on the material comes in a minimal, elemental fashion: O’Hare on a bare stage supported only by lighting effects.
“When we started back in 2005, it was as a response to the U.S. invasion of Bagdad: What does it mean to be at war?” Peterson said. “Over the years, it shifted a bit to have both a focus on warriors and war and the impulse to fight, but also as much about storytelling and getting back to basics.”
Peterson’s friendship with O’Hare originated in the Windy City when she directed him in a Chicago production of Richard Greenberg’s one-act play “The Author’s Voice.” Since then, O’Hare has snagged a Tony for his performance in Greenberg’s “Take Me Out” and he’s been a regular on “True Blood,” “American Horror Story” and “The Good Wife.” He’s also enjoyed parts in the films “Half Nelson,” “Milk” and the recent “Dallas Buyers Club.”
“The text you will hear on opening night is 30% Fagels’ translation and the rest is brand new writing that Dennis and I did,” Peterson said. The writing process was a dialogue that included exchanging video-taped storytelling in an attempt to sharpen the ear for quirks and cadences.
“We imagined he was Homer,” she said of O’Hare’s character, “if Homer was sort of condemned to walk the Earth forever telling the story of the Trojan War.”
The process took a long time for Peterson and O’Hare because “Dennis is an actor first and I am a director first” and both have kept busy, she said. The pair work-shopped the piece In New York (where Peterson lives), on a Seattle stage in 2010 and at Sundance’s theater lab in Utah. “An Iliad” has also been staged with other actors in Chicago and San Francisco while O’Hare was too busy to perform it.
Critics in other parts of the country have raved about “An Iliad.”
In a March 2012 review of stagings by O’Hare and another actor at New Work Theater Workshop, The New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood wrote that “the strength of ‘An Iliad’ resides in the combination of a naturally exciting narrative and the engaged, virtuosic performances.” In a warning to purists, “this is not simply a condensed recitation of the poem,” he wrote, “but a retelling that emphasizes contemporary vernacular over poetry.”
In April, Don Aucoin of The Boston Globe wrote that a performance of “An Iliad” by O’Hare in Boston was “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.”
For Peterson, the arrival of “An Illiad” in Santa Monica represents something of a culmination of those geographical and intellectual travels.Although Peterson worked from 1995 to 2005 at the Mark Taper Forum — where she directed productions including “The House of Bernarda Alba” and Culture Clash’s “Water and Power” — she has yet to see the inside of The Broad Stage since moving to New York.
“An Iliad” premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday and continues on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 2 at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $59 to $98. Call (310) 434-3470 or visit thebroadstage.com for show times and tickets.