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THEATER REVIEW: La Jolla Playhouse stages regional premiere of “An Iliad”

“The point is, Helen’s been stolen, and the Greeks have to get her back. It’s always something, isn’t it?”

The speaker, an old Poet who has shuffled onstage in a heavy coat and hat, is here to tell us about the Trojan War. He’s been doing this since the time of Homer (must have really ticked off the gods to have pulled this duty), and the burden of reciting man’s bloody history has clearly taken its toll. Though it’s evident he’d rather be elsewhere, he’s here to go through the story one more time.

Played on a nearly bare stage, with eerie lights throwing ominous shadows, the piece concentrates on the genesis and progression of the Trojan War and its two greatest warriors: the Greek Achilles and Hector, Troy’s finest, in the time leading up to their final showdown.

La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre present the regional premiere of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s “An Iliad,” a performance piece based on Homer’s epic poem, directed by Peterson.

Don’t expect straight Homer; this is more of a 100-minute riff on the original, using ancient Greek and quotes from the Robert Fagles translation, contemporized with modern narration and examples like violence-inducing road rage and supermarket lines.

Henry Woronicz stars as the aged Poet, in a brilliant turn that compellingly communicates sadness over the consequences of man’s addiction to war, but also injects humor and an endearing forgetfulness into the sorry saga of this particular conflict.

Woronicz, who ran the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for four years, is a riveting presence, a sort of folk bard who at one point recites the long chronological list of major wars (141 of them) from ancient Greece to today. Even more amazing: he makes it compelling theater.

This is a difficult, profoundly sad piece to watch, important but perhaps a bit too long for a one-man, one-topic show.

The Poet is joined (on a platform midway down one aisle) by solo string bassist Brian Ellingsen, playing haunting music by sound designer Mark Bennett. Now skittering down the strings, now pounding on the instrument with the heel of his hand, at times Ellingsen almost seems to be at war with his instrument. It’s a powerful and expressive complement to the story.

After the inhumanity and carnage will come shared tears between Achilles and Priam, Hector’s father, and Homer’s hopeful observation that after the war Achilles managed to set aside his rage, at least temporarily.

For a world which can count only 11 years in its entire history when man was not at war, this may be the best we can hope for.

The details

“An Iliad” plays through Sept. 9 at the Mandell Weiss Forum, UCSD, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call (858) 550-1010 or visit ¬HERE.