On Wednesday night I was getting ready for bed, pondering what I might do the following evening. Weed whack the lawn a bit? Tend to the garden? It was going to be awfully hot, so maybe hauling a gigantic pile of laundry to town and spending some quality time reading at the laundromatt would be a swell way to spend the night. But wait! I have tickets to “An Iliad,” I thought to myself. Maybe my Thursday night would be a winner after all.
I’ve always been honest with you, faithful readers, so I will admit that “An Iliad” wasn’t the GRSF performance I was most excited to see. It’s a one-man or one-woman show, depending on which performance you see — split between my two favorites at GRSF, Tarah Flanagan and Andrew Carlson. They might be at the top of my lists of Shakespeare loves, but just one actor? A nearly bare black-box theater stage? I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be blood and guts, there wouldn’t be flashy stage sets and the back-and-forth banter that lights up the theater at most GRSF productions. But, I am a faithful lover of the festival, and I knew there must be something there that I wouldn’t want to miss, so that familiar flutter of excitement was bouncing around my stomach as I danced to Winona State to take in the show.
In that vein of honesty, I must tell you: it’s Friday afternoon and I’m sitting at my desk, and I am still processing what happened on Thursday night in that nearly bare black-box theater. It was perhaps the most powerful piece of theater I have seen in my life.
Flanagan was flawless. Compelling. Dynamic and enchanting and heart-wrenchingly beautiful as she spun around the stage, retelling the story of Homer’s “The Iliad” in a way that was so profound, so real and raw and full of life, I am not certain there are words to describe it.
The performance brings the realities of war to life — and death. It transforms the stage to the shores of Troy, where the Trojan War has been raging for nine years, tying young men to the battlefield and away from their families — as their children grow, as their parents die, as they grow weary and the reasons for the near decade of violence become lost, trivial, meaningless. Flanagan shows us into the minds and hearts of Agamemnon and Achilles, their families, the gods and their childish impulses and powerful influences. And suddenly, clearly, the story isn’t just about the distant shores of Troy. It’s about all war, about humanity and its capacity for violence, about how there is something inside that can drive us to an aggression that exists leagues from our hearts and minds.
I’ll admit it. I cried. When Andromache, Hector’s wife, looks down at the battle and sees her husband’s death and wails, her six-month old in her arms, I wept.
It was one woman, but a show so immense, so powerful, there almost wasn’t room for her inside that nearly bare black-box theater. There certainly wasn’t room for the feelings it evoked.
As my friend and I wandered out to the parking lot, we could barely speak. “Wow,” was about all I could muster, deep in my own thoughts. I’m still fairly deep in them now, nearly a full day later, and I expect I will be thinking about this performance for a long time to come. I may well have to go back to see it again, and see Andrew’s performance, too.
While I will never hesitate to encourage you to soak in all of GRSF’s offerings, I want to make sure you understand that this is no obligatory review, no Winona cheer-camp column. This is something else entirely. “An Iliad” is magic — it’s art and war and humanity and poetry and beauty — condensed and exploding and unraveling from one, powerfully gifted being, alone on that stage too small to hold her. My eyes are glistening just thinking about it.