After the Richard Greenberg play The Author’s Voice in Chicago brought director Lisa Peterson and Tony Award-winning actor Denis O’Hare together for the first time in 1988, they hoped that there would be future shared gigs. It took a full 15 years to collaborate again, but the pair eventually reunited to pen An Iliad, a play that would go on to win a 2012 Obie award and receive productions around the country and world.
Based on The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan Wars, An Iliad is Theatrical Outfit‘s season opener, running September 15 through October 10 and marking the company’s first live performance in 18 months. Directed by Outfit artistic director Matt Torney, the production stars Lee Osorio as the Poet — combining commentary and stories in a modern-day setting — and Deisha Oliver as the Muse.
It was in 2003 after the U.S. invaded Iraq that Peterson came up with the concept. “We were suddenly at war again,” she says in a Zoom interview shared with O’Hare. “I had this feeling that as a country we were not necessarily clear about that. It was not affecting us personally. I was thinking about war plays and suddenly had this thought.”
Inspired by friend Morgan Jenness, who teaches dramatic literature and presents The Iliad as a spoken word piece, Peterson asked O’Hare if he would be interested in helping with an adaptation.
O’Hare was a definite yes at the initial idea. “Lisa and I are at a point then and now where creating our own work is a vital part of is how we stay alive in the business,” he says. “I don’t mean career-wise but spiritually and inspirationally to be working on your own ideas.
“This idea appealed to me on so many levels,” he continues. “It was the culture of the time. It did not feel like Americans were grappling with what it meant to be at war, and this was a great vehicle to do that because it’s at a remove, it’s not exactly what we’re doing, not exactly America. It’s ancient so you can have that safety of distance.”
Yet adapting the classic (from a translation by Robert Fagles) down to a manageable stage time, the pair knew, was not going to be easy. It took a few years of exploration and the help of a dramaturg to get its narrative drive, focusing on two primary characters, Hector and Achilles.
“That seems obvious now,” Peterson says. “They are the tentpoles of The Iliad. It’s an epic and there are incredible characters in it. Once we realized that we could view it as the story of two people entering war for different reasons with different emotions about it and different family stories, we started to pare away.”
Neither Achilles nor Hector have a dog in the fight, O’Hare says, and neither man should be there, in a way. “It’s not their war. They are not the heads; they are foot soldiers. That is what appeals to us. We are not the ones making the decisions but we are the ones fighting.”
The play premiered at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2010 and the next production was at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., the following year. Each stop along the way Peterson and O’Hare developed it a little further. The show was conceived with O’Hare in mind to star.
“In the beginning I thought it would be exciting to go to an actor who could create it with me,” Peterson says. “I didn’t know he had a history as a writer but I knew Denis had a strong political sensibility and he would have opinions.” In the end, though, O’Hare did not perform in An Iliad until its Big Apple debut at New York Theatre Workshop in 2012 because of other obligations. There, he and actor Stephen Spinella — who starred in the Princeton staging — alternated the role.
Going into the project, the playwrights knew the production would be either really long or compressed. They chose the later, clocking the show in at a crisp 90 minutes with no intermission. Despite its releative short length, though, it’s a demanding show and a lot of work for its main actor.
Although the two also worked on the play The Good Book together as well as the upcoming The Song of Rome — a companion piece of sorts to An Iliad — both have had tremendous success on their own. Besides writing and directing, Peterson served as resident director at the Mark Taper Forum for 10 years and associate director at La Jolla Playhouse for three years. A Tony winner for Broadway’s 2003 Take Me Out, O’Hare has since appeared in television series including True Blood and American Horror Story and films such as Dallas Buyers Club. He’s currently in London filming The Nevers for HBO.
Despite the focus on wars in An Iliad, neither playwright feels it’s an anti-war statement.
“It’s hard for me to find a war that I think is justified in ever producing anything decent,” O’Hare says. “That being said, I don’t think the piece has a political point of view. Homer doesn’t. What he is reflecting is cultural norms, which included glory, at the time, and honor, ideas that are harder for us to grasp. However, as a human being he was sketching out the horrifying reality of what it is to fight and die. It is graphic. There are so many passages where he lingers over the death. He doesn’t say [a character] dies. He says his guts were torn from him and splayed on the ground. There is a cost to death and war and you can’t get off scot-free. I think more than anti-war, what we were exploring is that there is something in the human character and nature and that is rage. What is that and why does it exist?”
Although the text for An Iliad is basically finished, Peterson and O’Hare have left room for whoever is producing it to breathe and respond to current events.
“People can choose to set it anywhere they want, do it any way, and any kind of person can perform the role of the Poet,” Peterson says. “Almost 10 years after [opening in New York], it’s fun for us to know who else is doing it and how they’re doing it.”