Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Iliad: Book One


By Homer, translated by Stanley Lombardo. Directed by Peter Meineck. Aquila Theatre at the Lucille Lortel. (CLOSED)

Those who admire Peter Meineck's WWII-set take on Homer are more respectful than ecstatic about it, while those who find it deficient are pretty consistently harsh. One universal complaint: The acting is uneven. There's little agreement about the rest: whether Stanley Lombardo's contempoary translation is apt or silly, whether the slo-mo battle scenes make effective tableaux or, as Frank Scheck puts it, resemble something from Monty Python. B+
(Martin Denton) It feels like a ritual, one that maybe if we repeat enough times we can finally absorb a lesson from...Even as the twin curses of arbitrary anger and capricious fate play out in this tale, Meineck keeps us aware throughout of the brutality, the cost, the banal awfulness of war. His actors tell and re-tell this portion of the Iliad night after night, but there's a sense somehow that its inevitability ought to be questioned. As the great Greek dramatists do elsewhere in the story of the House of Atreus, an underlying question is posed here: can the cycle of bloodshed ever be broken? Meineck's production is physically arresting and compelling. The cast, though, is somewhat uneven...It makes a strong case for another statement that Meineck makes in his program note—that this is a story that was always meant to be acted rather than simply read.

Backstage B+
(Leonard Jacobs) At a lean 75 minutes and staged inventively but with little more than large Tupperware bins for set pieces, the piece is clearly but a sliver of the ancient Homeric saga. It's perfect for academic situations — it's part of the Page to Stage program of the National Endowment of the Humanities — but also nourishing for regular theatregoers hungry for a classic nibble...By Lombardo's pen, there are different flavors of poetry ("Achilles chest was a rough knot of pain"), while Meineck's production offers a banquet of atmospherics, including slow-motion stage-combat sequences, Desiree Sanchez's stylized movement, and especially Anthony Cochrane's tyrannizing music.

CurtainUp B+
(Deirdre Donovan) Visually arresting, breaking open the myth and infusing it with modern meaning. Director Peter Meineck...resisted the current directorial mania to rewrite the myth and risk compromising the power of the great classic. He thus seems to ride easy in the harness of the old tale...Wearing the dual professional hat of production designer Meineck has also developed interesting stage business that serves the story but doesn't clutter it...Meineck does at times strain after an effect but, more often than not, he achieves it...Many scenes shock like a cold shower. But the most powerful episodes by far are the ones evoking the iconic D-Day photograph, with the ensemble re-enacting the American troops coming ashore at Omaha Beach. The miming of this image becomes the major motif of the evening and each time it recurs, it gains more intensity and pathos. While Meineck has obviously tried hard to teach his cast vocal aristocracy, their delivery is uneven.

Variety B
(Sam Thielman) If you must dress your Greek heroes in WWII army regalia, you may as well follow the example of helmer Peter Meineck's The Iliad: Book 1." Meineck's inventive, low-tech production for Aquila Theater never relies on the historical switcheroo to supply gravitas -- instead, he communicates Homer's ideas with innovative stage pictures, using period props and the full text of Stanley Lombardo's translation. The result is both hard to follow and easy to watch...The play's enjoyable moments (and there are plenty) come when director-designer Meineck uses a lighting cue and a few crates to describe a visit to the top of Olympus or stages a lengthy battle in slow motion...Actors [Jay] Painter and Vaishnavi Sharma (as Chryses' kidnapped daughter) get to demonstrate some range, but Meineck is usually content to keep his thesps running back and forth across the blank stage, sometimes in unison, working as a single storytelling unit. That's not always the best policy given that there's not a lot of differentiation among characters when the actors step out of one chorus or another. But it makes the whole thing run smoothly, even when it's confusing.

That Sounds Cool B
(Aaron Riccio) Desiree Sanchez's silent, slow-motion movements mix with Stanley Lombardo's straight-talking, modern translation, and a smoke machine is much abused. Anthony Cochrane's score switches from industrial sounds of aircraft to classic chords, and this goes well with Meineck's stripped stage (a few military-grade crates) and dark, war-tattered uniforms. The tone of the piece changes so often, it's hard to say what it is, but here goes: by sticking to the Iliad (instead of making something new, like Banana Bag & Bodice's comically tragic Beowulf), Meineck has brought back the oral tradition in all its uneven glory...It is a bit like being in a classroom, but only in the sense that every student reads the Iliad with a different spin: what Meineck's done is to push all these voices together, hoping to make real characters out of poetic descriptions. Where he succeeds best is in the comic milieu, presumably because his actors know how to play that far better than some of the more fantastic "drama"...The one major faltering point of Meineck's Iliad--and it's a make-or-break moment--is that its reliance on stagecraft makes it a very transparent and artificial work. There's no sense of transportation; if anything, there's a constant awareness of the work itself.

Theatermania D
(Adam R. Perlman) In the Aquila Theatre's Iliad: Book One, now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, the stage is soaked not in blood or in tears, but with a sodden self-seriousness that treats the material with both too much respect and too little...Throughout the evening, director Peter Meineck continues to make small, risk-adverse choices that seem neither motivated by the source material nor compelling in their own right...Setting the play during World War II -- a decision inspired by the cover of Stanley Lombardo's translation -- doesn't fly either...The action alternates stilted narration with declaratory shouting and betrays its seriousness only late in the game with some uneasy comedy...Only the sequence that sets Zeus on his Olympian throne suggests the visual and dramatic tension that this 75-minute evening needs so as not to feel a great deal longer.

The New York Times D-
(Wilborn Hampton) Begins to get some laughs that Homer probably never intended, and a couple of scenes resemble a “Saturday Night Live” skit more than a serious effort at staging epic poetry. Part of the problem is that Mr. Lombardo’s very contemporary translation invites some giggles when read aloud. It’s hard to deliver a line like “Being an Olympian can be rough” with a straight face. Once the titters begin, it’s hard to get an audience serious again about the Trojan War. The cast does little to help.

New York Post F
(Frank Scheck) Pity the kids of today. When I was growing up, we had the wonderful Classics Illustrated comic books to introduce us to the masterpieces of world literature. Now all they've got are misconceived theatrical productions like the Aquila Theatre Company's "Iliad: Book One." This 75-minute piece (the first of three parts) modernizes Homer's epic tale of the Trojan War by outfitting the actors in green army fatigues and gas masks. Billows of smoke can't disguise the silliness onstage, although it may induce asthma, and the slow-motion miming of marching and battle look like something out of Monty Python...There are just six performers, and the constant switching back and forth between dialogue and narration results in a disjointed and confusing rendition...This self-important production, partnered with public libraries across the country, is obviously designed to bring the text alive for modern audiences. But it's more likely to drive students directly to their CliffsNotes. B+ 11; Backstage B+ 11; CurtainUp B+ 11; Variety B 10; That Sounds Cool B 10; Theatermania D 4; The New York Times D- 3; New York Post F 1; TOTAL: 61/8 = 7.63 (C+)

1 comment:

Aaron Riccio said...

World War II-set in costume, only. The text is contemporary, true, but half of the action takes place on Olympus and there are songs in Greek; if people thought it was supposed to be a modernization (as opposed to just an aesthetic staging), no wonder they came off so disappointed. But like I said--the unevenness and artifice were bound to break the show for people.