by LAURA HAYES
A mother watches from the ramparts of Troy as Achilles cuts down her son, Hector, with a spear. Dust billows as Achilles ties Hector’s legs to the back of his chariot and gallops to the Greek camps. Hector’s wife, Andromache, comes outside, knowing something terrible has happened. In a daze, she walks to the top of the ramparts, sees Achilles’ chariot in the distance, and cries, asking how Hector could leave their son behind.
The audience sat, entranced, as the scene from Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s play “An Iliad” unfolded before their eyes during Great River Shakespeare Festivals’ (GRSF) preview performance of the play this week. “An Iliad,” which opens this weekend, features only two actors — Tarah Flanagan and Andrew Carlson. One actor performs the entire almost two-hour-long monologue, and
Flanagan and Carlson rotate performances.
Flanagan and Carlson both play “The Poet,” or a person who walks into the room to tell the tale of the Trojan War. “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time,” the Poet said. Flanagan, who has performed with the festival for the past 10 seasons, saw a filmed version of the play on television, featuring playwright Denis O’Hare as “The Poet.” “My reaction then is the same as now. [I] find [the] play devastating, illuminating, funny, touching, and wonderfully theatrical,” she said.
Carlson, who has also been with GRSF for approximately 10 seasons, said that he was blown away by the script. “I’m always really interested in original adaptions of classical work or established work,” he said. The Poet, he explained, is struggling to connect with the audience. “It’s something we try to do with Shakespeare’s language all the time here at GRSF. We take language that was written quite a long time ago and we try to make it land on an audience as if we’re directly speaking to them,” Carlson said.
“An Iliad,” Carlson continued, modernized the war, relating it to current military involvement. He said that in the script, which was written during the start of the United States’ involvement in the Iraq War, the playwrights opted to include modern conflicts. At one point, the Poet tries to compare the heat of the battle to a different battle, and lists conflicts ranging from the Crusades to both World Wars to Syria. Carlson and Flanagan chose to say “Syria” twice. “In part because there’s the civil war in Syria and recent U.S. action,” Carlson explained. “What’s great about the script is that it asks you to keep it very to-the-moment of what the audience may be experiencing.”
The playwrights, Flanagan said, felt it was important to explore themes surrounding war. “Now, we’ve been embroiled in these wars for some time,” she said. It’s easy to be cut off from the war unless you have a direct connection to it, Flanagan explained. People who participate in wars aren’t monoliths. “They’re multifaceted,” she explained.
“I love that this story explores, yes, the cost and the pain and ways that violence can be infuriating and stupefying, but also the beauty, friendship, bonds, and great humanity that can also be found inside of war,” Flanagan said. “I think everything about this play is important. I find it really challenging and for that reason, I don’t want to look away from it, but I also really appreciate those little moments like Hector with his wife and baby …”
While the general blocking of “An Iliad” is the same in both Carlson and Flanagan’s performances (the pair co-directed the show), both have different nuances to the character depending on how they interpret who the Poet is and the connections they find within the story. “Tarah and I are different … We have different lived experiences. We have different relationships to grief, rage, war, and being a man and woman — it’s a different relationship to all of those things,” he said.
The part of the play that scares Carlson the most is Patroclus’ rage. Achillies refuses to fight, and when the Greeks are losing a battle, Patroclus dons Achilles’ armor and poses as him in the fight. “It’s a part of myself that I don’t love, but that I connect to,” he admitted. As a father, Carlson said that he connected to Hector’s relationship to his son, Astyanax.
“An Iliad” comes with its challenges, the actors said. This is the first time that both Flanagan and Carlson have acted in a one-man or one-woman show. Memorizing the show took some time. Carlson said that he recorded himself reading the whole play and listened to the recordings over and over. Flanagan said that she and Carlson would go for runs around East Lake Winona and drill sections of the play with each other.
The play is also physically demanding. Flanagan said that she had to be careful not to lose her voice during high-intensity scenes. Because they use the whole stage, often running between the sides of the audience that they divided in to Greeks and Trojans, Carlson said that the role required a certain amount of athleticism. He added that the playwrights thought ahead and added a bottle of tequila — actually filled with water — for the actors to drink.
“An Iliad” opens on Saturday, June 24, and runs through July 29. Tickets can be purchased by going online to http://grsf.org/buy-tickets/ or calling the box office at 507-474-7900.