Don't mistake An Iliad, which just opened at Berkeley Rep, for The Iliad. That indefinite article is in the title for a reason. Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's adaptation of Homer's epic poem makes no pretense of being the definitive version, or even a particularly authoritative one.
It's a solo show in multiple senses of the word. The poet (Henry Woronicz) is the only man onstage aside from a musician (Brian Ellingsen), and the telling is the product of one man's flawed memory, seasoned by his own colloquialisms and embellishments. He's an unreliable narrator, just as our own understanding of The Iliad is unreliable. We don't know whether Homer was a real person or whether the Trojan War, part of which The Iliad chronicles, actually happened. In that sense, the poet is very much like us. He is groping for understanding amidst formidable obstacles: inconclusive historical evidence and his own limitations and prejudices.
In some ways, this script makes the storyteller too much like us. As he describes the kidnapping of beautiful Helen by Paris, the battle by every man in Greece to recover her, the final confrontation between Achilles and Hector, and Achilles's sympathy for his enemy's father, he is often unclear. He forgets names, appends qualifiers and tangents ("Funny how hard it is to describe a good man"), and hits dead ends that detract from the story. What's more, Woronicz doesn't always make his character shifts apparent, maintaining both stance and voice even as he embodies a different person.
Woronicz of course faces extraordinary challenges. Not only is he the only man onstage for an hour and 40 minutes, talking about people the audience can't see, but Peterson, who also directs, gives him little design support. Set, costumes, and lights are almost exclusively black and white. When a copper or aqua beam of light fades in, it feels like a trespass from another world. Light Designer Scott Zielinski still does much with a limited palette, evoking the beyond from which this mysterious storyteller hails and also forcing the storyteller to tell the story he's weary of repeating. But it places a major burden on Woronicz, who must color the world Peterson deliberately leaves monochrome. Only sometimes does Woronicz rise to the challenge. He succeeds most when his character inserts himself the least, focusing on the emotional truth of a begging father rather than his own comments on it.
An Iliad makes faceless masses of ancient soldiers feel like unique, accessible human beings. It makes the Trojan War into our war. But if The Iliad, as Peterson says, is "the original solo performance," something has been lost in translation to An Iliad. If The Iliad is an epic, An Iliad is mere postmodern commentary.
An Iliad continues through Nov. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Admission is $14.50-$77.