Wilbury Group’s “An Iliad” Packs A Real Punch

Jan 30, 2014

Ah, yes, ahh, “The Iliad.” By Homer. We all know that. Helen of Troy. Achilles Agamemnon. Lots of battles, murders and . . . Well, you know truth is that a lot of folks, myself certainly included, pretty much slept through any course we ever took on “The Iliad.” We ended up with not a whole lot more than the ability to say, “Oh, yes, the Iliad. By Homer.” Haven’t looked at that in years.”

Matthew Fraza as the Poet in Wilbury Theater Group's one-man production 'An Illiad.'
Credit Wilbury Theater Group

So it is a very good thing the Wilbury Group is presenting “An Iliad” a show that cuts the original down to those 90 minutes, updates it, and manages to project a real punch and to ask a very pertinent and current question. More about that later.

Performing in a theater on Broad Street in Providence where Trinity Rep began all those years ago, this work opens with its single actor, Matthew Fraza, stepping on stage glad all in brown and beige. He carries a 1940-style suitcase and begins to tell a tale that applies to all centuries, all peoples. With a nice sense of timing and an ability to change the pace of his performance in an instant, Fraza runs through some of Homer’s original work.

Agamemnon and Achilles battle over women. A huge Greek fleet, thousands of ships, sails. Men are slaughtered, women raped. It is nothing less than a continuous crime scene.

Taken from a translation by the well-known Princeton professor Robert Fagles, “An Iliad” was put together by New York director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare. They have attempted to emphases the continuing power and truth of the ancient poem. Along the way throw in many an updated references. World War One, for instance. Soldiers from Kansas and California, not to mention Woonsocket, at least in this Rhode Island production. 

Homer’s original seemed to be on the side of heroism and bravery even as it documented the horrors of war. Peterson and O’Hare are clearly saying that war is hell. At one point, using an incredible memory, actor Fraza names a streaming catalog of wars, from ancient Greek to today’s continuing battles. It’s a powerful reminder to us all.

This show does waver a bit. Some cutting, or perhaps just an intermission, might make it sharper, more coherent. But it is unmistakable that “An Iliad” has much to say.

And primarily what it says is in the question it asks. For that, let’s turn to the splendid piece on Greek myths by the redoubtable essayist Dr. Stanley M. Aronson wrote for the Providence Journal earlier this week. After compiling the struggles of the ancients, Dr. Aronson talked of the myth of Sisyphus and his pointless forced labor consisting of rolling a huge bolder up a hill again and again ending, always, in failure.

Myths such as this pose one question, Dr. Aronson says. “Are these our teachers?”

“An Iliad” makes the same point. Are wars forever, it asks. I’m afraid we all know the answer.

Want to Go?

“An Iliad” continues at the Wilbury Group in Providence through February 8th.

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