Mention an ancient Greek poem written in dactylic hexameter and most of us yawn and brush off the antiquated dust.
But “An Iliad,” an adaptation of Homer’s epic, sinks the brutality of war into the marrow, actor/producer Algernon D’Ammassa said.
D’Ammassa will perform in Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of the classic story of the Trojan War at The Cell Theatre beginning Friday, Aug. 22.
The adapters render much of the story in casual contemporary language between occasional bellows in the original Greek.
It seeks humble parallels in contemporary life to illustrate the passions igniting the Greeks and Trojans.
Sharpened swords fly, then tear into flesh. Swords clatter on shields. Blood soaks the sand.
Souls descend into the underworld. The gods watch, then rush to the aid of their favorites.
The play telescopes “The Iliad” stripped down and pared into a piece both visceral and tumultuous. Its resonance echoes with today’s headlines in both heroism and horror.
It all starts with a single actor and an accompanying musician on a bare stage.
“It presents what we get from war and what it costs us,” D’Ammassa said.
The play opens with the entrance of a strange, apparently homeless man carrying a beat-up suitcase.
He begins to sing in ancient Greek. He has a hard time remembering all the words now, but the stories possess him.
It is his destiny to tell this tale – and ours to live it – generation after generation. A few weeks of war mushrooms into a decade.
“You start to relate to people like Achilles (to) people you know,” D’Ammassa said.
When a character becomes lost, he begins reciting a list of all the wars across human history.
The recitation covers battles dating from Alexander the Great’s conquest of Sumer through the current Syrian bloodshed.
“I’ve had veterans come up to me in tears,” D’Ammassa said. “It’s one of the most powerful moments in the show. We fight our wars the same ways. The technology is different, but it still comes down to fighting over land, property and resources.”
In a Cliff Notes condensation, “The Iliad” is about the conflict between two Trojan War generals named Achilles and Hector.
Achilles is half man, half god. Hector is the military leader of Troy.
D’Ammassa and musician Randy Granger have taken the play from Las Cruces to El Paso and North Carolina, with Tucson slated for February.
The actor teaches in the Creative Media Institute at New Mexico State University. Granger accompanies him on flute, percussion, cigar box guitars and found objects-turned-instruments.
“It’s different every time,” D’Ammassa said. “He’s very good at listening. As my performance changes, he’ll do different things to emphasize my energy.”
“It’s exactly the kind of theater I always wanted to create,” the actor continued. “It puts all the onus on the performer to hold the audience.”