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An Iliad

I got in a bit ago from a performance of An Iliad at Portland Center Stage. It was incredibly moving, and I'm feeling a bit wiped out by it.

It's a one-man show. He comes in, drunk and dirty and disheveled in layers of clothes and a knit cap, carrying a bottle of tequila and a battered bag. He's mumbling to himself. The set is a series of what look like concrete or stone slab walls with the graffiti of ages carved into them in every language.

He begins chanting in ancient Greek, drunkenly, then switches to English and starts talking about how he doesn't want to tell this story anymore, but he hears the voices of Muses and is compelled.

He undresses, down to a white shirt and white jeans. He starts to tell the story.

It's the Iliad, partly in Homeric verse, partly in colloquial English, broken up and reassembled and explicated along the way as if by a man who was there, and who has been telling war stories for hundreds of years.

It builds and builds until he is acting out the feral, raging bloodlust of Achilles in avenging the death of Patroclus, and says, "And that is why I can't keep telling this story," and little by little you start asking yourself, "Why war?"

When Hector is dead and Achilles has dragged his body around for a while, the storyteller seems to lose sight of which war he's talking about. He says that it must have been...and then spends fully five minutes naming every major and minor war from that day to this.

I was bawling my eyes out by the end. The beautiful dead young men, the waste, the widows and orphans, the baby dashed on the paving stones, the funeral pyre, the white bones, the burial.

He puts all his coats and jackets and scarves back on and wanders away again, and you don't quite know whether he was an immortal bard of war, or just a homeless, traumatized vet of some one of the dozen or so recent wars he mentions.

It was brilliant. The text demands a tour-de-force performance ranging from near-Shakespearean declamation of verse lines to sweating, crazed street person, and actor Joseph Graves delivered.

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