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War All The Time 

Quill Theatre’s “An Iliad” knocks the dust off a Greek epic and relates it to today.

click to enlarge Alec Beard gives a bravura performance as the Poet in Quill Theatre's "An Iliad," running through April 16 at Dominion Energy Center's Gottwald Playhouse.

Courtesy of Quill Theatre

Alec Beard gives a bravura performance as the Poet in Quill Theatre's "An Iliad," running through April 16 at Dominion Energy Center's Gottwald Playhouse.

If you haven’t read the ancient Greek epic poem “The Iliad,” you may be surprised to learn that it’s a story you already know. Or, perhaps more accurately, one that we’re all doomed to repeat.

That’s the lesson of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s play adaptation “An Iliad” — that war has practically been a constant presence as long as humans have existed on Earth. Currently onstage at the Dominion Arts Center’s Gottwald Playhouse, Quill Theatre’s “An Iliad” gives the audience plenty to chew on, especially with the Russo-Ukrainian War continuing to dominate the news.

Like “The Iliad,” this play is set during the final days of the 10-year Trojan War, albeit with a modern framework in its recounting of Achilles, Agamemnon and Hector. Staged on a theater chic set of rugs, platforms and stage lights, the play begins with the Poet (Alec Beard) shuffling onto the scene with a battered briefcase.

Initially, the Poet attempts to recount the epic in Ancient Greek. Quickly, he finds, he can’t remember his Greek or many of the minor details of “The Iliad,” emphasizing the variations that exist of Homer’s epic; it’s a tale old enough that Greek gods play central roles in the action.

Somehow, the war-weary Poet has seen it all: He has first-hand knowledge of the players in the Trojan War, as well as plenty of opinions. He’s over Paris, the Trojan prince who abducted Helen, causing the war. He’s displeased with Helen, too, and would rather skip over the whole Trojan Horse business.

The Poet also has first-hand knowledge of later and current conflicts. Has he fought in all of them? Witnessed them as a war correspondent? “An Iliad” deliciously leaves these and other questions unanswered. In its informal and contemporary delivery, the whole experience is something like getting looped with that really engaging Classics professor you had in undergrad.

click to enlarge Beard is assisted on this journey by cellist Chris Chorney, who plays Muse. - COURTESY OF QUILL THEATRE
  • Courtesy of Quill Theatre
  • Beard is assisted on this journey by cellist Chris Chorney, who plays Muse.

As the Poet, Beard gives a bravura performance as the man who’s seen it all. On his own, he brings the Trojan War to life as though he knew these heroes and horrors personally. While showcasing his virtuosic range, Beard never descends into histrionics; like jazz, his performance is often about the notes he doesn’t play. Because of this, the show’s tensions feel real. Whether relating the death of a character’s son or casually flicking out a joke about Patroclus being Achilles’ beloved “friend,” Beard’s performance is a masterclass in acting.

Beard is assisted on this journey by cellist Chris Chorney, who plays Muse. While mainly consumed with performing composer Niccolo Seligmann’s haunting score, Chorney’s interplay with Beard gets a few laughs of its own. Gretta Daughtrey’s lighting design matches shifts in mood and setting, helping the audience understand what’s going on.

The more complicated a story, the more important the direction and conveying of intention; here, James Ricks never loses his audience for a beat. Especially in its more emotional moments, like portraying the bloodlust that can consume a soldier, Ricks’ direction excels.

Last week, I wrote about the parallels with the Ukraine conflict found in Virginia Rep’s “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” a romantic comedy set in World War II. Here, the wartime comparisons are overt. Ukraine is mentioned at least twice, as well as a long list of other conflicts that have beset the world since the Trojan War.

Through its smart staging, engaging acting and modern language, “An Iliad” knocks the dust off the Greek epic and makes the Trojan War speak for its time and ours.

Quill Theatre’s “An Iliad” plays through April 16 at the Dominion Arts Center, 600 E. Grace St., 23219. For more information, visit quilltheatre.org or call (804) 340-0115.

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