Richard Baird (with Amanda Schaar in background) in "An Iliad." Photo by Aaron Rumley
It’s tragic that “An Iliad,” an indictment of all wars told through the prism of the Trojan War, is still so damned relevant, so agonizingly current 10 years almost to the date of its first-ever performance.
In North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of the one-person drama by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, Ukraine is name-dropped, the invasion by Russia and ensuing war being just the latest in a terrifying world history of wars. The list of bloody conflicts is long, and its breathless, passionate recital by Richard Baird as The Poet in the NCR production is when “An Iliad” feels like punch after punch to the breadbasket.
I’ve seen the play a couple of times before, its having been staged by La Jolla Playhouse in 2012 and five years later by New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. I’ve never swooned over it the way some critics have. It can be as exhausting for the audience as it is for the actor onstage.
It might have been the timing, concurrent with the bloodshed in Ukraine, that magnetized me this time around. It might have been Baird’s no-holds-barred performance, a mix of oratory, explosiveness and nuance. Whatever the reason, this staging of “An Iliad” directed by David Ellenstein is urgent theater.
“An Iliad” is, of course, an adaptation of Homer’s epic account of the Trojan War. It’s populated by familiar figures such as opposing warriors Achilles and Hector, Helen of Troy, Agamenmon the king, and both Greek gods and goddesses. Over an hour and a half, the Poet (Baird) portrays these and more, interspersing the events of the decade-long Trojan War with more contemporary warfare references.
The imagery of “An Iliad,” particularly in its recounting of battle scenes and Achilles’ confrontation with Hector, is graphic and brutal. As it should be. War is graphic and brutal.
The other presence in the play is an accompanying cellist, performing behind a scrim. At North Coast Rep that’s Amanda Schaar. The strafing of notes echoes the flailing of swords.
In this play, the demands on the actor’s endurance, physicality and powers of memorization are prodigious. Baird accepts the challenge and, like Achilles, proceeds full force. Perhaps it’s good this is a limited-run engagement (through April 10). Performances like Baird’s would seem to require major recovery time. That speaks highly of his commitment to the production and the role.
I wish an end to the war in Ukraine.
I wish an end to the list in “An Iliad.”
"An Iliad" runs through April 10 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.