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War Music

A Brave Attempt, But Not Quite There

Honor. Glory. Bloodshed. These are the words that come to mind at the mention of Homerís Iliad, the famous epic poem about the wrath of Achilles during the last year of the Trojan War. While the poem itself is rather long and tedious in places, the tensions between the characters as well as Homerís descriptions of the battles would seem rich fodder for a theatrical production. Yet, American Conservatory Theatreís production of "War Music", a stage adaption of Christopher Logueís book by the same name, provides none of the spectacle, excitement, and tension one might expect from a modern remake of Homerís classic tale of war.

To be fair, it must be said at the beginning that I attended a preview of the show. Therefore, the production was still technically subject to adjustment. And hopefully, they made some major adjustments.

The story is one of a haughty, young Greek warrior (Achilles, played by Jud Williford) and a proud and powerful king (Agamemnon, played by Lee Ernst) quarreling over a woman. Agamemnon has stolen Achillesí prize, Briseis, and the hotheaded Achilles, his honor offended, has accordingly withdrawn his troops from the war against the Trojans. When his best friend and lover Patroclus (Christopher Tocco) is killed by the Trojan prince Hector (Gregory Wallace), however, Achilles re-enters the fray, swearing vengeance against Troyís greatest warrior.

While the middle portion of Homerís epic has already been removed in order to pare the story down to its essentials, a glut of extraneous detail still remains. The production is three hours of dragging action (and way too much narration -- the enchanting poetry of Logueís work doesnít quite come across on stage) that creates little tension and does not seem to develop any central theme. The only apparent connection between scenes is that they are all taken from the Iliad.

What is the purpose of the action? Where is it leading? What idea or theme is being developed? It feels as though a long series of even longer scenes were stuck together without anyone asking themselves towards what everything was moving, like one of Uncle Joeís interminable stories that lasts for hours and goes absolutely nowhere.

And like the stories of that long-winded relative we all have somewhere in our families, "War Music" inserts random bits of slapstick that donít seem to make any sense. Zeus (Jack Willis), for example, the king of the gods and ruler of the skies, is portrayed as a silk robe-wearing, yo-yo bearing, swaggering yutz, while his brother Poseidon (Anthony Fusco), god of the sea, wears flippers and a diving mask and is referred to as the ďPope of the Sea". In and of themselves, these presentations of the all-too-serious Greek gods are hilarious, but are ill-suited to a story ultimately presenting itself as a profound reflection on honor and death. At least, I think itís presenting itself as profound. Itís hard to tell with the propeller beanies thrown in.

The choices of props and choreography were also often confusing. The play is touted as a modernization of the Iliad story; thus the costuming choice of khaki cargo pants and jackets makes perfect sense, as does the miming of shooting guns in one of the battle scenes (actually done in an intriguing way with a number of naked light bulbs suspended over the action, alternately flickering on and off to the beats of speed metal to create a sense of the chaos). However, elsewhere in the play, the soldiers are equipped with shields and spears, leaving the audience rather confused as to whether the play is attempting a modernized production or one that is faithful to the time in which the story originally takes place.

On the other hand, the acting is spectacular. The whole cast is incredibly talented, assuming different roles with ease and showing mastery of both classical acting techniques and physical comedy. In addition, some fascinating effects are achieved through the use of lighting, music, and the modest but well-conceived set. It is obvious that everyone involved with the production has worked hard to bring it to fruition, and Homerís Iliad is certainly a complex story that presents many difficulties in trying to adapt it to the stage. Director Lilian Groag just needs to make some firm decisions concerning the direction in which she wants to take the show in order to give it the coherence necessary to truly engage the audience.

At American Conservatory Theater
Runs through April 26th
Tickets: $17-$82