In a near faultless production, actor and mime Denis O’Hare enacts, in a solo performance, the agony and ecstasy of Homer’s ancient epic of the Trojan War in a modern condensed and critiqued version on the Emerson Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage.
Homer’s epic poem, a recasting of oral fragments, come down through the ages to be, finally, written in the new Greek alphabet, a celebration and questioning of the fury of war and the heroic tradition that seems to perpetuate war beyond any rational goal.
The genius of “An Iliad” lies in its modern focus on the futility of war whereas with Homer both the celebration and the questioning seem about equal. This was, after all, the heroic age of Greece, when the favorite sport of kings and heroes — and Gods, war, could be questioned only so far.
O’Hare, though, is a Homer come down through the ages to present-day Boston. He seems much the worse for wear as he slumps around a stage that, dimly lit, seems to be more a warehouse or shelter than a heroic podium. He wears a shapeless overcoat with large lapels that he occasionally grabs in both hands as he straightens it and his posture as though reminding himself and us that it is himself, Homer, who is speaking, so we better listen up as he tunes his celebrated vocal instrument.
O’Hare is a shape-shifter as well as an actor and orator. Without any visible movement, he can grow, from where we sit, measurably taller or shorter, more or less regal, as if recalling better days when he enjoyed a more partisan, less complicated audience.
Now, he ingratiatingly assumes an exaggerated Boston accent as he pours himself draughts of liquor from a wine-dark bottle and speaks, somewhat swaggeringly, of holding an audience in various, and, he insinuates, prominent local ba’s in places like Jamaica Plain and Roxbury — for example.
He also tutors the audience in the subject of Homeric epic, asking a series of rapid questions about who did what and when and nodding credits and debits to right and wrong answers.
Yes, Homer /O’Hare knows how to play a Boston theater audience, but what he really wants, both comically and desperately, is to invoke The Muse. A black suited female figure finally does enter stage right, to stand momentarily still before disappearing stage left.
Who was that figure? “The Muse,” Herself! Or a Boston wife looking for her errant husband to scold and lead home by the nose from the neighborhood ba’?
Luckily for us, O’Hare/Homer takes her for his muse, the dust of battle rises and Homer, updated, of course, by O’Hare and his co-writer Lisa Peterson, narrates “An Iliad” and in full epic voice.
There is a bare but very effective minimum of live music from a solo bass fiddle and subtly orchestrated lighting, but mostly it is O’Hare who channels the terror, the fury, the futility of war. Whether contorted with heroic rage, beaten down by the bloody drudgery of the common soldier, or inhabited by the chicanery of a king or official hoping to make the most of the spoils, or a father or wife’s deep despair, O’Hare is everywhere on and off the field.
This reviewer found a deeply philosophical critique of war, by a modern sage; then again, O’Hare’s presentation is so encyclopedic you might be otherwise persuaded. However, you leave the theater, you’ll leave moved by artistry of a height and breadth to recall those ancient tellers of tales who embodied as well as told.
“Homer’s Coat” is the name of the collective of which Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson are founding members. “Homer’s Coat” tasks itself with creatively exploring the foundational literature of Western civilization. Their latest work, “The Good Book,” examines faith and the creation of the Christian Bible over centuries.
(“An Iliad: Homer’s Coat” continues through November 24 at the Emerson Paramount Center, Robert J. Orchard Stage, 559 Washington St., Boston, Massachusetts. For more information, call (617) 824-8400 or visit artsemerson.org)