Q&A: An Iliad

Denis O'Hare and Stephen Spinella take turns in an epic solo show.

Stephen Spinella, left, and Denis O'Hare

Stephen Spinella, left, and Denis O'Hare Photograph: Joan Marcus

War can be hell on actors. When Denis O'Hare coadapted Homer's Iliad with director Lisa Peterson, they weren't thinking about how arduous it would be to perform the resulting 40-page monologue without getting a little hoarse from the Trojans. "We just made this thing up and then went, 'Huh, I wonder if any human being can do it,'" O'Hare admits. Scheduling problems kept him from performing An Iliad in two 2010 productions: one in Seattle, and a second at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre. But the latter, which starred Stephen Spinella, gave New York Theatre Workshop's Jim Nicola an idea: What if O'Hare and Spinella split the burden by delivering the piece on alternating nights?

The Iliad is more than 15,000 lines long. How do you cram such a huge piece onstage?
Denis O'Hare:
We've sort of carved out our version. We've decided to focus on war and its meaning, and the waste of war and the human propensity for violence.
Stephen Spinella:
It's an immense narrative, filled with so many stories that it feels like the other texts that have lasted that long, like the Old Testament. You can imbue them with or extract from them what will satisfy you in whatever age you're in.

What were the first choices you made in adapting the play from Robert Fagles's translation?
Lisa Peterson:
It seemed obvious to build it around two warriors who finally collide: Achilles and Hector. So the first cut that I did was to take everything else out. But there's this connecting material that you have to have. The first cut had no gods in it—but without the gods you don't have the mystery and the scope, and you lose a lot of the humor.
Spinella: That cosmology is also a narrative device that allows you to add story constantly, embedding story into story into story about how things happened—things that today might just be attributed to serendipity or happenstance.
O'Hare: Patroclus' helmet falls off. Why? It could have been the wind. It could have been a tree branch. But in The Iliad, it's done by a god.

Is the storyteller in this piece meant to be Homer?
Peterson: Our idea of Homer is as a collective consciousness. I believe that The Iliad was composed by many people learning and telling the story. So this is our attempt to imagine what it would be like to hear one of these bards, one of the Homers.
Spinella: But it's profoundly fractured by his constant personal response to the story and his history of telling it. You're always aware of his act of telling the story, and that meta-story becomes the real story of the evening.
Peterson: The character is a being who believes that he's the author of the poem. He describes it like he was there. He can't seem to disappear; he keeps coming to on some stage somewhere. And he's sort of called out by a society that needs to think about war. He can't die and go away. He seems to be immortal.
O'Hare: About a third of [the text] is Fagles's verse, some of which we chopped and edited; a third is transcriptions of improvs that [Lisa and I] did together; and a third is original writing to get us from one place to the next.

Denis and Stephen, have you seen each other perform this?
O'Hare: I have this weird position of being a coauthor, so I saw Stephen three or four times at the McCarter. He was fantastic. I haven't stolen too much from him, I don't think.
Spinella: Steal! Steal whatever you want! I haven't seen him yet, because I'm scared. I don't want to watch him do it and feel inadequate...I'm going on the last Friday of the run.
O'Hare: I have the same fear. You hear some of his line readings, and you go, "Oh, that's a really good idea. Why aren't I doing that?"
Spinella: I put my fingers in my ears and go, "Uhnuhnuhnuhnuhnuh."
O'Hare: You just can't get infected by somebody else's point of view.
Spinella: You can! But you mustn't!
O'Hare: It's not being lily-livered or insecure. It's that you have to maintain the integrity of your vision.
Peterson: The idea of sharing it was attractive to both of you—not to watch someone else do it but more to have a conversation with each other.
Spinella: I also have to say that a certain amount of the impulse to switch off was that when I did it at the McCarter, I lost my voice and I was hamstrung for the entire run.
O'Hare: It's this massive athletic achievement that has a huge vocal requirement, and we don't know that it's even feasible.
Spinella: It truly is daunting. We 're doing a Greek tragedy, essentially.
O'Hare: When you get to chapter seven and you still have to confront Andromache's grief and Hecuba's grief, you're like [moaning], "There's nothing left! I have nothing left!"
Spinella: And then there's Priam and Achilles! And then you have to do the poet at the end, which is a whole other thing.
O'Hare: Even if you can limp through it eight times a week, why wouldn't you want to give your best-quality performance? So we thought, Let's give us both a chance to give full, passionate performances every time! And give us a fighting chance to not be destroyed.

An Iliad is at the New York Theatre Workshop through March 25.

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