Two powerful solo shows played in the area over the past weekend, both of them responses to violence: in one case, large-scale mayhem that many of us would consider heroic; in the other, a small-group killing, inexplicable, that has deep emotional resonance.
Denis O’Hare is The Poet, a time-shifting tramp in a trenchcoat and porkpie hat (rather than one of Samuel Beckett’s bowlers), tumbled down the centuries to sing the story of Homer’s Iliad. The Poet’s song/riff is a blend of the original Greek, a verse translation, a bit of audience interaction and prompting, and a free adaptation into vernacular English. His memory failing, nevertheless the Poet can summon music and his Muses (skillful Brian Ellingsen on double bass and Milltone tongue piano) and can turn a clever phrase: “Athena tequila” is especially fun.
The piece focuses on the best-known incidents of Homer’s poem: the love between Achilles and Patroclus, Achilles’ great sulk, and the brutal killings of Patroclus and Hector. The Poet’s sentiments perhaps lie with the people of Troy, for although O’Hare’s voice is neutral when he embodies one of the Trojans, he adopts a loutish English dialect for the Greeks that owes something to Sicily or South Philly. The crux of this 100-minute monologue is a stupendous catalogue of wars known to Western history, for a thousand years an unbroken chain ending (for now) in Syria.
Speaking to us out of time as he does, when the Poet names the great cities destroyed by war, from Troy down to Dresden and Hiroshima, he briefly pauses, then moves on. Could it be that, Cassandra-like, he can see the next great devastation of the future, and knows (better than the Greek prophetess did) that it is pointless to share his vision with us?
Nanna Ingvarsson’s task is no less challenging, as she personifies more than half a dozen people (many of them composites) connected to the 2006 mass murder-suicide at the West Nickel Mines School, a former Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. From an innocent schoolgirl of six or seven, to a sassy supermarket clerk, to the tormented killer himself, Ingvarsson runs through a series of emotional and physical changes; Jessica DIckey’s script is a patchwork quilt of interlayered monologues (with a small debt to the Tectonic Theater Project’s own Laramie Project). The actor does well to focus on a specific, simple gesture for each speaker (a twirled bonnet string, a closed-off pair of folded arms) so that we keep our bearings as characters pop in and out.
The piece works best as a primer on the Amish perspective on the shootings. Rather than seek an explanation, a “why” of the violence, the community’s immediate response is one of of compassion, most notably toward the widow of the gunman. We hear the inspiring story of martyred Anabaptist Dirk Willemsz, who escaped from religious imprisonment across thin ice, only to turn back to rescue his pursuer who had broken through into the icy water. Is it possible that such a simple gesture of peace can forestall destruction?
- An Iliad, by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, based on Homer’s Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles, a Homer’s Coat project, directed by Lisa Peterson, Clarice Smith Center Kay Theatre, College Park, Md.
- The Amish Project, by Jessica Dickey, directed by Holly Twyford, produced by Factory 449, Anacostia Arts Center, Washington