The gods of war never quench their thirst for blood in "An Iliad."
Homer's epic odyssey has been crystallized into a bold one-man show in Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's spartan adaptation. Building on Robert Fagles' translation of the mythic tale, this is a 100-minute journey into the carnage and horror of the Trojan War that should explode in the mind's eye. The electrifying nature of the drama is muted somewhat in this San Jose Stage production. Kenneth Kelleher's staging lacks the heart-stopping virtuosity the text demands, and that undercuts the ferocity of the experience, but it's still a memorable clash of the titans.
All Greek tragedies require a feat of herculean proportions, but this adaptation takes those extremes even further. Here, all the gods and monsters are rendered by a single actor, who must summon the butchery of battle through the force of his craft alone. The storyteller is a minstrel doomed to wander the Earth through the centuries, telling his tale of woe. Each time he tells it, he hopes it will be the last time.
The Poet (Jackson Davis) wanders into a dilapidated old theater -- housing a junk pile of rope, crates and buckets -- and transforms the stark surroundings into an arena of blood and fire. Michael Palumbo's lights suggest a haunted realm streaked with dust and shadows.
Davis, a former employee of this newspaper, nails the chatty, almost confessional tone of this narrator, who regales us the nine-year conflict between Greece and Troy, the slaughter of innocents and the death of hope.
It's an intelligent and engaging performance that nevertheless fails to find the red-hot pulse of the narrative. Davis gently captures the staunch loyalty of Achilles' bosom friend Patroclus and the wistful resignation of Hector's wife Andromache. He sculpts with nuance the tenor of life in Troy before the war, suggesting the elegance and calm of the once great citadel now reduced to savagery and rubble.
The actor also deftly leaps from the majestic heights of classical poetry to anecdotes about road rage and supermarkets. It's these collisions of the ancient and mundane that make this adaptation so potent and accessible.
But this part is nothing if not demanding. Davis often races through passages that demand more delicacy, and he doesn't color the play's endless lists (names of warriors, names of battles) with enough shades, so the volition of the drama gets bogged down in the recitation. The litany of warfare, which stretches from the Peloponnesian War and the Crusades to the Vietnam War and Syria, should be a devastating moment, but here it lacks a palpable sense of dread. At times, the play's antiwar thrust can seem didactic when it ought to simply sweep us away with its fury.
These catalogs can wreak havoc on the cadence. If the pace of the production had more propulsion, the narrative would crescendo with shattering emotional moments, such as the murder of Hector's infant son, who was thrown to his death by the Greek victors, and the cunning betrayal of the old King Priam, who leaves the city vulnerable to the infamous Trojan horse.
By the time the actor charges into the final battle between Achilles and Hector, some of the primal heat of the tragedy has been lost. And yet there's no denying that the "Iliad" still sings.
Adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, based on Homer's "The Iliad"
Through: May 4
Where: San Jose Stage Company, 490 South First Street
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission