Review: Denis O'Hare delivers the Trojan war into the 21st century

The five years it took to plan and develop "An Iliad" for the Broad Stage culminates in a mad, burning and passionate interpretation of Homer's "The Iliad," Denis O'Hare's one man show based off the famous epic. O'Hare is known for numerous appearances in TV shows and films such as "American Horror Story," "Milk" and "Dallas Buyers Club." In "Iliad" he appeared on stage as The Poet, a modern version of Homer recounting the Trojan War.

With the help of director Lisa Peterson, O'Hare researched his role and came up with an act that makes the ancient world feel at home in the 21st century.

Dressed in ragged pants and trench coat, he provided an eyewitness account of Homer's tale of the sacking of Troy, Achilles's rage and the politics of it all. O'Hare would occasionally hum a war-like beat in Greek, reciting Homer's words in their maternal tongue. Background music that ranged from atmospheric to tribal was provided by bassist Brian Ellingsen who stood onstage like an immersed witness to The Poet's incantations.

In his attire O'Hare could have easily been imagined as a rugged war correspondent or pulp novelist. He dominated the stage, using nothing more than a table, a few chairs and a suitcase to recite The Iliad and make modernist observations.

In this sense he stayed true to the original tradition of Homer himself, who historians agree dictated his epic poems orally years before they were set down on papyrus.

O'Hare would describe the characters and act out their parts, meanwhile drawing sharp psychological insights peppered with dark humor. With messianic intensity he would act out Achilles's preparation for battle, then in cabaret fashion play Paris as a hipster-wuss with lines in the style of "like, I would go out to the front but I might be taken for ransom and, like, that would put me in an awkward situation." He would then pose on a table, Marilyn Monroe-style and evoke Helen of Sparta as a stone-cold femme fatale. For a moment there was a hint of iconic Greek actress Irene Papa's diabolical Helen from Michael Cacoyannis's film "The Trojan Women." With bestial fury he would clasp the air and describe the death of Patroclus, Achilles's combat pupil and lover. In one moment of nostalgia he performed the moment Hector leaves his wife and child to face Achilles, masterfully allowing the audience to see the moment as he would stand as Hector, and then take the form of his wife cradling a child.

What was especially unique and memorable was how O'Hare managed to make the tale relevant for our own times, peppering the hour and 43 minute monologue with references to the current, blood-soaked terrain of modern civilization. In O'Hare's hands the Trojan War became a holy war, a war of egos rampaging like mad dogs, a war of cruelty fueled by lustful passion. O'Hare creates a Troy that is today's Damascus and indeed, there is a moment where he recites by memory every major conflict since the wars of Greece, going through each century, calling out events such as the French Revolution, World War I, World War II, Nicaragua, Iraq I and II, Gaza and ending with Syria.

And that is the real power of "An Iliad," by making it so gritty and modern O'Hare reminds viewers that Homer, like Shakespeare, is timeless because the themes of his epic are universal and oh so human. O'Hare makes it clear that even the gods are nothing more than power players in the tragic annihilation of Troy, taking sides and scheming on a grand chessboard. It was a performance driven by great drama, magnificent storytelling and ideas.

"An Illiad" will play at the Broad Stage through Feb. 2.