As the audience streamed into the lobby of the Spencer Theatre a few minutes after the opening night performance of Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s intense production of “An Iliad,” I bumped into a well-known veteran actor who said he was stunned by what he had just seen.
“Stunned” is probably the best description for the expression on his face. We quickly agreed that neither of us had ever seen anything quite like it.
The play, written for one actor by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, is an imaginative approach to Homer’s “The Iliad.” The piece brings key episodes of the epic poem to life through the voice of the Poet, a sort of itinerant storyteller who transcends time and space and uses the material as a lens through which we see the horror and heartbreak of all wars, from prehistory to this very moment.
The Poet is played by Kyle Hatley, who delivers a performance unique in its balance of physicality, vocal delivery, emotional intensity and smarts. Anyone familiar with his work knows that Hatley is a skilled actor capable of rising above the material he’s given. In this case the transcendent material is the play itself, which Hatley inhabits and makes his own.
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The Rep production, directed by Jerry Genochio, is impeccably realized in visual terms.
Scenic designer Martin Andrew’s set is an eye-popping achievement that appears to be constructed of salvaged wood and provides a sprawling playing area with what appears to be the curved, skeletal remains of ancient ships washed up at the foot of a crumbling battlement. It is at once rough-hewn and elegant and lends the production a dreamlike, timeless feel.
Georgianna Londre Buchanan’s costumes — simple, rustic and thoughtfully detailed — complement the set, and Grant Wilcoxen’s lighting manages the neat trick of being both understated and spectacular.
But without a vivid central performance, the design elements would be meaningless. The show runs only 100 minutes, more or less, but Hatley invites us on an epic journey that leaves no doubt among viewers that they’ve traveled to a place they’ve never encountered before.
Hatley finds opportunities for humor, sometimes dry, sometimes raucous. His impersonation of a drunken, petty Menelaus debating an enraged Achilles is highly amusing. In moments like that, we see that Peterson and O’Hare have approached the material with great respect, but not necessarily with reverence.
Hatley creates the illusion of spontaneity, as if every word and gesture are happening in the moment, raw and unrehearsed. Toward the end he lets us see that the Poet pays a steep price in recounting the Trojan War, whose tales of heroism and spectacle lead to a grim, devastating conclusion.
A second man onstage is the Musician, played by Raymond Castrey, the show’s musical director. Castrey isn’t always there, but when he is he makes a remarkable, nonverbal contribution. He is the first person we see, setting the tone by evoking a Middle Eastern feel from a ukulele.
During the show he also performs on a mountain dulcimer and a range of percussion instruments, some of which are built into the set. You get the idea that the Musician has gathered instruments where he finds them in his endless travels. Although Castrey never speaks, he and Hatley achieve a rapport that adds color, texture and depth to the production.
If I could, I would see this show again. There’s so much to savor, despite its brevity. As my acquaintance in the lobby remarked, he didn’t want it to end.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to email@example.com.
The Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s “An Iliad” continues through Feb. 15 at the Spencer Theatre in the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry St. Call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.