In the first minutes of An Iliad, it’s unclear where the stage ends and the ninth-floor lobby of Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio begins. Stephen Yoakam, the only player in this one-act drama, exits the elevator looking like a Vietnam vet trying to catch a ride. He seems weighed down, and not just by his multiple layers of clothing. There’s something on his mind—something he needs to share. Well, maybe not needs to, but rather has to. He’s Homer, the ultimate storyteller; the man behind the Iliad, the Odyssey, and numerous other hymns and epics upon which so many other stories are based. And as he calls upon the Muses to help him share stories of war and love—and the studio doors close—you get the sense that while he’s willing to tell us about the Trojan-Greek war, he’s not exactly thrilled about it. Because, in a way, speaking of war is to acknowledge its ever-present existence, and sometimes it’s easier to ignore and forget rather than to dwell on such a truth.
Yoakam plays Homer as a man who is at once frustrated, frantic, passionate, and empathetic. At first he seems forgetful, unable to recall names and places with the immediacy he would prefer. But because of the conversational tone of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s play, watching Yoakam furrow his brow in frustration and pace just feels like you’re waiting for your dad or uncle to spit out his story. These added eccentricities help the audience relate to the larger-than-life author, bringing him down from the pedestal on which Homer is so often placed.
Although Yoakam is alone on stage, the lighting and set design, by Tom Mays and Michael Hoover respectively, are key players in the telling of Homer’s tales. Flashing spotlights highlight the marble faces of different Muses. A shallow pool of water and box of sand offer Yoakam elements with which to interact and use to punctuate details of his stories. The scaffolding covering the once-orante walls of Troy bring to mind images of post-war cities that have been bombed into oblivion and are now mere shadows of their once glorious selves.
Director Benjamin McGovern smartly chose when and where Yoakam should make use of the set. To drive the climax of one story home, McGovern has Yoakam leap atop a step, shouting the tale of blood and gore as the lights fade to red. Other times, though, only Yoakam’s incredibly expressive face can be seen, his sadness over humanity’s addiction to violence powerfully portrayed through the tired expression of his eyes.
A bit slow moving at the start, An Iliad is like a 400-page novel: each chapter must be set up by the previous ones before it can speed ahead to the most exciting parts. Like so often is the case, however, patience is rewarded. As the stories and emotions tumble out, layers of Yoakam’s costume are stripped away until what’s left is Homer in his most raw and honest state. Here standing before us is a man who’s seen and experienced a lifetime’s worth of pain; a man begging his listeners to heed his warning, abandon hate, and choose to love. Whether or not we have the courage to do so is up to us.
Through May 16
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Mpls., 612-377-2224