OUR BARD IN CHINA: Actor/director Joseph Graves has worked with Peking University, Oregon Shakespeare Fest and Knight Rider. IMAGE: mikelarremore.com

The Iliad, Homer's epic poem of the Trojan war, was written in the eighth century B.C. It is 15,700 lines long, and encompasses 10 years and some 75 major characters. An Iliad, Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson's adaptation of Homer's work, written in the past two years or so, is 90 minutes long and contains one character; the Poet, who has no other name, is tasked with conveying the whole oppressive bulk of the story—or the parts with Hector and Achilles, anyway—into a swallowable portion without completely stripping it of its majesty. What actor can handle such a role?

"We call him our Shakespeare man in China," says director Penny Metropulos of Joseph Graves, the performer she's picked for Portland Center Stage's production. The British-born actor and director, a veteran of both the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and TV's original Knight Rider who resembles a beardier Paul Newman, has been directing the canon in China for eight years (the first time was, he says, "a grand experience, though, as you might imagine, a linguistically challenging one, since I spoke no Chinese"), where he is now the artistic director of Peking University's Institute of World Theatre and Film—soon to be the first institute of higher education in mainland China to offer a major in theater arts.

"Everyone worldwide knows, of course, of China's extraordinary social and economic advances in recent years," Graves wrote in an email interview last month. "However, few seem to be aware of the most exciting artistic renaissance that is taking place here as well. It is tremendously exciting to see, and to be, as well, some small part of that."

"This is a contemporary poet who is basically carrying the DNA of Homer, and indeed those who fought and lived during the Trojan War in his soul," Metropulos says. "He is compelled to tell this story by something that is unknown to him." She turned to Graves, whom she has known since 1984, when the pair played Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, because, she said, "He is a poet in his own right. He has a depth and breadth of spirit that I think completely identifies with this material."

Graves, who will be spending his contractually allowed two-month leave from China to perform the show, comes across as reservedly thrilled about the opportunity. "This seemed an ideal project," he wrote. Let's hope so.

SEE IT: Portland Center Stage presents An Iliad at the Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700, pcs.org. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays, noon Thursdays, alternating 2 pm Saturday and 7:30 pm Sunday performances, Sept. 28-Nov. 21. $18-$40.

Stage Events

Oct. 8-Nov. 13: Back Bog Beast Bait
Defunkt Theatre, Portland's only all-volunteer theater company devoted to obscure and difficult plays, had a rough go of it last year. Two of its founders moved away, and a pair of weak shows attracted little attention. But all that ended this spring, when the company's fantastic production of Sarah Kane's near-incomprehensible 4.48 Psychosis played to full houses and swept the Drammy Awards. Now Defunkt is taking on a work from Sam Shepard's freaky tale of a fire-breathing swamp monster, and we have high hopes. The company has done well with horror in the past and this production includes many of the talents that made 4.48 so great, plus Ben Plont, the most compelling actor in town. The Back Door Theater, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 481-2960, defunktheatre.com. 8 pm Thursdays-Sundays. $10-$15, Thursdays and Sundays are pay what you will.

Oct. 15-Nov. 13: Dead Man's Cell Phone
Sarah Ruhl, probably the most lauded female playwright of the present moment, is about as big as a playwright can get without abandoning her artistic aspirations, so it is exciting that the scrappy Theatre Vertigo ensemble will be the first to produce her 2007 drama, Dead Man's Cell Phone, in Portland. Artists Rep has produced Ruhl's work twice, with middling results, but Vertigo's perverse sense of humor and ability to make the most of minuscule resources should be suited to this play, about a lonely woman who unwittingly becomes the guardian of a dead man's memory, through his cell phone. Theater! Theatre!, 3430 SE Belmont St., theatrevertigo.org. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays. $15.

Oct. 30-Nov. 21: Alice & Wonderland
Oregon Children's Theatre departs from its usual diet of typing cows with this crazy-sounding 1973 rock-opera adaptation of Lewis Carroll's psychedelic adventure, presented in the style of Tommy. This production stars a pair of amazing singers, Sara Catherine Wheatley and David Cole, in costumes by the abundantly imaginative Sara Catherine Wheatley. The Newmark Theater, 1111 SW Broadway, 228-9571, ticketmaster.com. 2 and 5 pm Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. $13-$26.

Nov. 4-21: Stage Left Lost
Imago Theatre co-founder Jerry Mouawad's latest movement-theater experiment draws from Shakespeare's Othello. An actress playing Desdemona is murdered by the actor playing Othello while the audience watches the drama unfold both onstage and off from seats at stage left. Seating is limited to 25 (all seating is onstage). Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., 231-3959. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday. $10-$12.