Theater Review: At The Contemporary Theater, An Unconventional Take On 'The Illiad'

Oct 5, 2017

Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad" spins a tale of combat, warriors and a private vendetta, set during the mythical war between the Greeks and the Trojans. In a production at the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, “The Iliad" gets a somewhat unusual treatment. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Bill Gale says this Iliad will challenge the way you think about war.

“An Iliad,” in Wakefield is without doubt a new look at an old theme. The original covered the horrors of war but found some sense of heroism and glory in it all. This new take seems to me to be very much a view of war as being a hateful, often gross and horrible undertaking. Anti-war all the way is surely it’s primary goal. With that said, it is also a vibrant, mind-opening production, a work that will have you, perhaps, re-thinking your views of war and peace.

Written by Lisa Peterson and Dennis O’Hare, this 90-minute, no intermission drama also has lots of new theatrical ways. After all, it has, so far, been done exclusively outdoors in the generally chilly evenings of New England, far from the warmth of Greece. And, oh yes,  audience members are given free soup and some delicious bread, not to mention they can also huddle in the heavy, colorful blankets offered to all.

Then consider there’s just one actor, the remarkable Matt Fraza who has just one leg but brings great mobility and power to the work. He rolls about in a worn out looking wheelchair -- except when he is galloping out of the chair, using a small crutch to charge over the cement acting space. He has vibrancy and sometimes humor, but most of all anger and fear.

Credit Seth Jacobson Photography / Courtesy of Contemporary Theater Company

This “Iliad” is as completely anti-war as it can be. Actor Fraza rails against it. At one moment he whips into a calling of all the wars you can think of. From the Trojan War to the War of 1812, World Wars I and II, the Civil War, others too many to remember, some you probably have never even heard of.

Directed by Dane Jouannot with vital drive, this “Iliad” is, it must be said, sometimes a bit tangled in its attributes and name-calling. Agamemnon and Helen of Troy, Achilles and Apollo, many others that we might remember as major Greeks of those far away days are mentioned and then dropped.

The drive and coherence of this “Iliad” are not about the re-telling of the vital early Greek times. It really wants to have us in the audience look at this oldest of stories and come up with a complete dislike of war. Its point seems to be that after many a war many of us can’t tell if we’ve won or lost.

Still, this modern look at ancient times has much to say. Contemporary Theatre’s artistic director Christopher Simpson says it will be done outdoors from now on if weather allows. If the chills arrive it will be indoors. Either way,  “Iliad” is much worth seeing.

“The Iliad” continues at the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield on Thursdays and  Friday evenings through October. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.