There's nothing in life quite like living in the moment. Being caught up in the immediacy of an experience and feeling fully engrossed in it to the exclusion of all other concerns is the closest we ever come to achieving enlightenment. That's why sex is such a popular pastime.
It's also why an adaptation of a 3,000-year-old Ancient Greek epic by a guy whose credentials include writing a pornographic novel and playing the Spaghetti-Eating Fanatic in Terry Gilliam's oddball 1977 film Jabberwocky can make an 11-hour plane journey from Frankfurt to San Francisco fly by like Hermes on winged feet. The contemporary British poet Christopher Logue's War Music, his voluminous riff on Homer's Iliad, grabbed and held my attention with such canine fervency while I was in transatlantic transit a couple of weeks ago that I completely forgot to sleep, eat, and pee.
This surprised me greatly, as I'm not much of a classical poetry fan. Works in dactylic hexameter written on scrolls by toga-wearing graybeards tend to remind me of the classrooms of my childhood, with their scarred wooden desks, scratchy blackboards, and air stagnant with the scent of chalk and carbolic soap. But Logue's novel-length poem roars with such vitality and pungency that Homer's hoary tale concerning the bitter, prolonged, tit-for-tat war between the Greek and Trojan armies seems to be happening in the very present. Reading it feels a bit like being an avatar landing in a richly immersive virtual world for the first time. The environment hauls you in and won't let go.
Tragically, the same can't be said for American Conservatory Theater's world premiere adaptation of Logue's poem. This is a pity because Lillian Groag, who adapted and directs the production, is normally an imaginative director whose production of The Tempest for the California Shakespeare Theater a few years back remains one of the most memorable Shakespeare productions I've ever experienced. But her take on War Music somehow manages to excise both the war and the music from Logue's cataclysmic work.
I don't much feel like dwelling on the stultifying boredom that I felt last week as I sat watching the actors march endlessly back and forth across the Geary Theater stage in army fatigues for two and a half hours. So I'll cut to the chase: Besides Daniel Ostling's simple yet striking set design suggesting the interior of an ancient ship lying quietly under a huge symbolic sun/moon, I'm hard-pressed to find an ounce of life or truth in this show. A lazy adaptor, Groag has kept all the third-person narrative devices intact in the play-text. The clunky he-said, she-said narration kills the immediacy of the onstage action. The actors look as if they are executing some vague, academic notion of Classical Theater for the Modern Age rather than coming at their characters from a place of true personal connectivity and engagement.
Whether pretending to be human or superhuman, the cast members fare badly. Long before Woody Allen brought camp to Mount Olympus in his 1995 movie Mighty Aphrodite, dramatists have enjoyed making fun of classical gods. These days, whiny-voiced, self-centered deities prancing around in ridiculous costumes are nothing special. Groag seems oblivious to this trend and gives her actors full license to indicate and mug. Whether camping it up in sunglasses and a boxing champ's satin robe as Zeus (Jack Willis) or vamping it up in lipstick and heels as Aphrodite (René Augesen), ACT piles on the clichés.
Sometimes overearnest and always bland, the actors' portrayals of the story's mortals are no better. In the role of the Greek hero Achilles, Jud Williford, sporting a capacious ginger Braveheart-style wig, declaims his most emotional lines as if he's channeling histrionic Victorian thespian Henry Irving. Meanwhile, as the show's narrator, the poet Homer, Anthony Fusco is forever looking pensively into the middle distance. Perhaps he wishes he could flee the theater as my guest did at intermission, abandoning the second half — not to mention his long-suffering theater critic friend — for Irish coffee at the Stardust Lounge around the corner.
To be fair, the actors don't deserve all the blame. I'd defy the very best of their profession to avoid mugging and indicating when they're being forced to pretend to be a river by waving strips of blue silk sheeting up and down, perform a twittish Busby Berkeley dance routine for no particular reason, and march purposefully about while making awkward slicing arm gestures reminiscent of Madonna's "Vogue" video. With the exception of the hard-working people who spend their lives trussed up in Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck costumes at Disney World, I don't think I've felt this sorry for a group of performers in a long time.
Thankfully, even this unhappy debacle of a play can't take away the arresting immediacy of the source material. All I have to do is conjure the gloriously cinematic opening scene of Logue's epic with its brain-boggling vision of "Upwards of 50,000 men/Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet," and Homer's raucous theater of warfare springs instantly to life in all its spear-throwing, gut-punching, flesh-tearing horror. Perhaps the poetry itself is so dramatic in scope that it defies conventional theatricalization. Descriptions like "cuntstruck Agamemnon" and "his eyes like furnace doors ajar" attack the reader as they fly like gunfire off the page. But realizing such images onstage is at best an act of repetition. The emphasis serves only to deaden their impact.
Forget living in the now. Groag's adaptation is the theatrical equivalent of being forced to read Homer by one of his more scholarly 18th-century translators. While Logue turns the long-dead poet into a man of the moment, Groag sends him packing back to his musty, ancient tomb.