Henry Woronicz’s portrayal of The Poet in “An Iliad,” provides La Jolla Playhouse audiences with one of the most profound performances staged there to date. The subject of his tour-de-force piece is the ancient Greek historian Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War that contains 15,000 lines.
Like its delivery in 8th century B.C. Greece, Woronicz takes on the role of a singer who passionately “inhabits” many of the war’s characters to tell the multitudes — in this case, the audience — of its atrocities. Through anger, pain, curiosity, gentleness and earnest desire to educate, Woronicz is prone to laughter or tears in describing the events. Interspersed between his recountings of the Trojan War are references to the many wars the world has known.
At one point, Woronicz falls breathlessly into a chair and with machine gun-like delivery, recites the names of 144 wars on Earth by their timeline. It’s a mind-blowing moment revealing the depth and ingenuity in this adaptation by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson of Robert Fagles’ translation of “An Iliad.”
With just a minimal set, Woronicz manages to create images in the minds of the audience that transport them back as bystanders to witness the Trojan War in every minute detail. He also imparts snippets of actions and innuendos of the horror of recent wars, as well.
The spellbound audience sees The Poet inhabit the anger of Achilles as he plans his attack on Hector, or as Hector, who is obsessed with defending his home of Troy. Woronicz could be Hector’s father begging Achilles for his dead son's body, or one of the gods — Zeus … Athena. He’s the observer standing on the beach vividly describing the thousands of ships with thousands of Achaean men ready to lead the charge against Troy.
During his many rantings, The Poet often begs for his muses to infuse him with substance. Brian Ellingsen portrays one of those muses as The Musician.
With Mark Bennett’s original music and sound design, The Musician stands on a stairway in the theater, and either on his own or with a invitation from The Poet by a wave of his hand, draws his bow across his giant double bass to add an appropriate sound to the story telling — like when he mimicks the thundering sound of horse hooves as the Poet describes an attack.
Woronicz and Ellingsen create a beautiful marriage of a truly unique presentation about ancient times with the underlying message that bad things never seem to end.
If you go
What: ‘An Iliad’
When: Matinees, evenings through Sept. 9
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD campus