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Burg Review: Open Stage brings “masterful” “Iliad” to modern times, to your living room

My only brush with Homer’s epic poem “An Iliad” was 10th grade English.

I remember muttering a few stanzas out loud in class, then the classmate behind me fumbled through reading the next few lines. If Thomas Weaver [The Poet] (pictured) and Joseph Osborne [The Muse] could have brought a modernized re-telling of the Trojan War alive for me as a sophomore, I wouldn’t have fallen asleep facedown in my “Cliff’s Notes.”

For those of us currently longing for story slams, low-lit coffeehouses or basement nightclubs, Weaver evokes a similar smoky mood when entering an empty theater to perform his monologue. Multiple cameras capture his wild gesticulations as he gets close enough to the camera lens to fog it lightly, bringing intense eye contact and intimacy to each audience member, courtesy of Zoom.

Every element of the play’s trappings is simple: the setting of a chair, the prop of a bottle, the costume of Everyman. Yet the story and its theme feel layered and complex.

The Poet could be the regular at a corner pub telling war stories play-by-play, clicking dog tags together. He could be your co-worker whose mind never left Kosovo. Then as soon as The Muse pipes in his rhythmic, mystical guitar to accompany the re-telling, the mood feels as transcendent as a Doors album, The Poet chanting and dancing like a shaman, taking us on an ancient spiritual journey as if he’s come straight from Troy to urgently tell us his account.

We don’t know who The Poet is or from where he hails. He probably isn’t Greek at all. In fact, he uses distinctive American southern and West Coast accents and talks about American places when referencing soldiers’ hometowns.

The tale and the telling are raw and guttural, scraping the bottom of humanity, connecting the primeval past and present through unforgettable images. I didn’t view anything through the camera except The Poet and the Muse, but I left the play imagining penetrating images of a son’s body being handed to his father, and a baby’s head splitting when dropping to the pavement. Where was that level of detail in “Cliff’s Notes?”

I can’t say I absorbed the entire two-hour battle plan for the Trojan War. Even with a laser pointer on one of those cork boards with strings, I probably would have lost the thread somewhere. Yet more props surely would have shifted the atmosphere into seminar mode, upending the mood Weaver and Osborne masterfully wove together.

For Weaver, it felt weird to perform to an empty audience, although it changed his storytelling in a physical way.

“The poem is such a theatrical story to tell,” he said. “It was never meant to be performed, and it wasn’t meant for one person to tell.”

In the background, Osborne played the music to “get to the emotion of what’s happening at any given time. If people are getting hurt [in the poem], then the music sounds like people are getting hurt.”

With oral tradition and storytelling, Producer Stuart Landon puts forth the notion that Homer is more than one author, more like a collective idea.

“With the unfortunately enduring theme of war, we are all some version of Homer, and we are all involved in telling and re-telling the continuing war story, passing it down like an oral tradition,” he said.

The interactive talk-back afterwards offers further dissection of the play, with discourse more insightful than the throwback questions I remember from my English class about theme, mood, voice and the dreaded question, “What did the author intend?” You’ll even have the chance to ask your own questions via Zoom’s Q&A features.

Landon revealed that one of the play’s adapters was anti-war, and one was not, yielding a push-pull struggle within the adaptation. This makes for fascinating speculation for the argument of Homer being pro-war or anti-war. Either way, this gripping legend will pull you in from beginning to end, laying the best and worst of humanity in the midst of desperate times in front of you to decide.

“An Iliad” runs twice more live through the Zoom app on June 5 and June 13, with a 48-hour viewing window. Tickets and all access information are available through Open Stage’s website

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