Henry Woronicz stars in Obie Award-winner Lisa Peterson’s visceral new version of An Iliad. Photo: courtesy kevinberne.com

At Berkeley Rep, one phenomenal actor on a bare stage performs a version of The Iliad — and keeps us spellbound for 100 minutes.

This haunting, yet animated theatrical event focuses on events in the tenth and final year of the siege of Troy, supposedly about the 13th century B.C. An Iliad concentrates on the wrath and vengeance of two heroic warriors on opposite sides of the battles, the Greek Achilles and Hector for Troy (Ilion). Achilles seeks to return Helen to her husband, Menelaus of Mycenae, while Hector wants to keep her for Paris, the mortal prince of Troy. This is such a compelling theatrical story that it was wise to eliminate most of the other sections of the Iliad.

Henry Woronicz first appears the Poet, with his arms outstretched speaking the opening lines of Book I of The Iliad in Greek on the dark Thrust stage; he is dressed in nondescript military clothes of a past era. Even though most of the audience doesn’t understand his words, his speech pattern and gestures signify his importance.

The Poet needs to tell the tale of the sack of ancient Troy, but it pains him to relive the carnage. Occasionally he makes an aside to the audience, but, for the majority of his performance, he both acts and tells the classic tale. Woronicz’s acting includes an amazing ability to take on the physicality of characters, from the imposing Achilles to a tender mother and child. Adding to the universality of An Iliad, the Poet references the savagery of wars throughout history. It’s an excellent point, but bit unsubtly made.

Woronicz, whose body of work includes a Broadway production of Julius Caesar with Denzel Washington, numerous regional and Shakespearean theaters, TV appearances and The Playboy of the Western World at Berkeley Rep, shines in this complex and demanding role. The only addition is talented Brian Ellingsen who plays the double bass running the gamut from sweetness to atonal war accompaniments by composer Mark Bennett.

Henry Woronicz shines in a complex and demanding role. Photo: courtesy kevinberne.com
Henry Woronicz shines in a complex and demanding role. Photo: courtesy kevinberne.com

Co-adapter and director Lisa Peterson previously directed Antony and Cleopatra, The Fall and Mother Courage at Berkeley Rep. She earned well-deserved Obie Awards for An Iliad and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Co-adapter Denis O’Hare won the Tony, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards for his performance in the Broadway play, Take Me Out. His other Broadway productions include Assassins (Tony nomination), Sweet Charity and Inherit the Wind.

Homer wrote his poems, which had been previously recited orally, about 500 years after the events he describes. According to Homer, Mycenae was the home of Agamemnon, who led the Greek armies. Although at first thought to be based on Homer’s imagination, the ruins of Mycenae were excavated in 1874 by Heinrich Schliemann, the German amateur archaeologist. Mycenae (90 miles southwest of Athens) was one of the ancient city-states of Greek civilization, a military stronghold that dominated much of southern Greece. Today, Mycenae’s numerous beautiful artifacts, “Agamemnon’s tomb,” city gates, walls and other buildings are open to the public.

Schliemann had discovered the ruins of Troy — thought to be a myth — during his excavations in the previous decade, near Hisarlik in modern Turkey. Although many layers of civilization were found, Troy’s layer VII is believed to be the historical equivalent of Homer’s Troy.

The combination of the great writing talent of Homer as translated by Robert Fagles, the creative adaption by Peterson and O’Hare, the tight direction by Peterson, the music by Bennett as performed by Ellingsen and the tour-de-force acting by Woronicz makes this eighth century B.C. poem come alive with remarkable emotion and power.

An Iliad runs through November 18, 2012. For information and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep’s website.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...