Beneath the bulging muscle, the polished armor, the gleaming fleets and onlooking deities, The Iliad, Homer's poem of the ugliest battle of the Trojan war, boils down to this: Dying fighting in defense of your country can be pretty fucking unseemly. This is especially true when your body is dragged by a chariot around the walls of your hometown, in full view of your wife—it's not seemly at all.
This truth, in all its sadness and ugliness, is captured fairly well in An Iliad, a solo performance adapted by Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson from Robert Fagles' translation of the poem. Here's how it goes: A ragged storyteller stumbles onto the stage in what looks like a highway underpass, the stone walls inscribed with the names of millennia of soldiers. He is drunk, unkempt. He doesn't seem to want to tell you his war stories, but he is compelled, possibly by the gods. And so he sings.
An Iliad premiered last spring at Seattle Rep, where it was roundly criticized for talking down too much to the audience. I reservedly agree; the first 40 minutes of the 110-minute performance contain a lot of exposition and attempts to contemporize the material, and feel unpleasantly like a lecture from a hip high-school teacher. But this production, directed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Penny Metropulos and performed by Joseph Graves, a man whose day job is directing Shakespeare in China, tones down the didactic elements of the show in favor of fury. When Graves finally gets to do battle, he is extraordinary, wrenching forth the blood and sun and sand, the whole, miserable mess of Hector's needless death and the rage of Achilles in a performance that can honestly be described as spellbinding.
What Graves conveys, and O'Hare and Peterson failed to realize, is that The Iliad does not need to be made contemporary; the war weariness, the pointless butchery and the petty pride of the generals that inhabit its pages are already very much of our times, and An Iliad is most compelling when it quotes the text directly. When Graves, channeling Achilles, shouts, "would to god my rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw," we feel that rage immediately. No further translation is necessary.
Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 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.