An old bearded man walks into a room and begins reciting in Ancient Greek the invocation of the Muse from the “Iliad.”
It is, in fact, not another Lit Trad class, but actually a one-man, one-cellist production of Homer’s “Iliad,” based on the English translation by Robert Fagles, put on by Stage West Theatre in Fort Worth from Aug. 25-Sept.18.
The production was held in the Stage West Theater, in a small, offset studio theater with minimal lights.
There are about five rows of seating on each side and 10 rows of seating in the front.
One gets the feeling from this show that the storyteller is speaking with the audience, not just performing to it.
Jim Covault played the poet, switching between dramatic tellings of the story, recitation of passages in Ancient Greek and topical commentary.
During his monologues the poet would trail off or ask such questions as “What was the name again?” At one point he took a couple of shots from a bottle.
He would also walk around the stage and up the side aisles, one time even walking through a row of people.
These quirks gave the show more of the feel of an intimate conversation than a highly staged and stylized production.
Covault’s Greek recitation had been perfected with the help of the University of Dallas’ own Dr. Paolo Asso, assistant professor of classics.
Asso praised Covault’s mastery of the Greek passages.
“The play tries to make the war of the “Iliad” a contemporary issue, but not in a way that is brainy or detached,” Asso said. “It’s very hands-on. It is a testament to [Covault’s] skill as an actor … that he was able to master these sounds, because they serve their purpose. It’s evocative of this austere moment in our history … the foundation of the western identity … and at the same time it’s a human paradigm, because all humans experience war.”
Dr. Asso places great importance on the inclusion of the actual ancient Greek within the play.
“Homer is at the beginning of this tradition, in his rhythm so peculiar and this language that is nowadays to us so unfriendly, and yet so familiar,” Asso said. “[The opening lines of the Iliad] have a rhythm built into them that marks the entire poem … Language has a physical dimension, if you don’t have the physical dimension, you are missing something.”
The use of props was heavy, but most were ordinary objects used as symbolic abstractions, not scenery pieces intended to convey a direct representation of ancient Troy or Greece.
Some objects evoked the ancient world, such as the two Doric columns in the back, or the rostrum-like tall balcony with a classical statue of a woman below it.
A couch with a golden blanket over it was where the poet went to discuss Paris and Helen.
Empty World War I uniforms represent soldiers who never returned. Asso pointed out that which war is depicted does not matter, only the men involved.
“One important role [sic] in the play … is the idea of war,” Asso said. “Not just war in the sense in which we experience it aesthetically as a tale, but war as a dimension of the human condition.”
The more modern elements did not seem anachronistic, but instead pointed to the idea of the poet transcending time, yet not unaffected by it, and painfully aware of the cyclical aspect of life dictated by unchanging human nature, which always contains anger, pride and honor.
By not isolating the story in the time period, but rather explicating its universality, the performance successfully brought the story to life.
A brass bucket stood at the front of the stage; water dripped from the ceiling into it throughout the production. This captured the idea of time as linear but repetitive. All wars are different, but are also painfully similar in their destruction.
The rage of Peleus’ son, Achilles, becomes all of history’s patrimony as the destructive force from which war cannot be separated.
One recalls the very first lines from Burnt Norton, the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.”
Besides being a captivating retelling of the fall of Troy, the story also provoked reflection on man’s interaction with time.
The part of the cellist, listed in the playbill as “The Musician,” was performed by Jordan Jones Cleaver. Cleaver was dressed in a white, flowing garment like that of a muse, and held herself with the lofty air of one.
After the Poet’s proem, the stoic and splendid Cleaver appeared on the balcony with her cello.
The Musician never spoke nor directly interacted with the poet. Her musical accompaniment, however, added another dimension to the story, at times emphasizing the rhythm of the poet’s words and elsewhere marking shifts or beats with staccato tapping on her instrument as though it were a drum.
The isolation between the poet and musician in their respective spheres, coupled with their influence on and harmony with each other, offered a metatheatrical facet to the production.
The force of the production was not in splendid effects, but in the raw power of the player as poet, and in his ability to synthesize the story of the “Iliad” with contemporary concerns.