Missing the kick in ancient Greek myth

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday April 7, 2009
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King Agamemnon (Lee Ernst) addresses his soldiers in a<br>scene from <i>War Music.</i> Photo: Kevin Berne
King Agamemnon (Lee Ernst) addresses his soldiers in a
scene from War Music. Photo: Kevin Berne

The English poet Christopher Logue, now 82, has spent nearly five decades rendering Homer's Iliad into a modernist idiom. Many literary critics have hailed his approach as both radical and brilliant, and the lure to bring this bracing wordplay to life on a stage is easy to understand. Unfortunately, adaptor-director Lillian Groag's world-premiere production of War Music at ACT does neither Homer nor Logue any favors.

As the nearly three-hour slog wore on, it was hard not to repeatedly think of director Mary Zimmerman's work in revitalizing Greek mythology in such productions at Berkeley Rep as Metamorphoses and Argonautika. Zimmerman managed to be both contemporary and classical, irreverent and respectful in her adaptations and their stagings. These are adjectives that Groag would likely welcome, and while they are fitfully present, they seem to fight rather than complement each other.

Logue titled his first volume of translations War Music, coinciding with parts 16 to 19 of the 24-book Iliad. This excerpt from Homer's epic chronicle of the Trojan Wars is bracketed by the great warrior Achilles' decision to quit the Greek army in dispute over spoils and his decision to return to the battlefield.

A cast of 13 actors plays 40 characters, both gods and mortals, along with a couple of Homeric narrators. Yet while the cast includes some of the area's strongest actors, none are able to be more than competent in a production that lacks conviction and true theatrical imagination.

Putting the actors in khaki military fatigues works well enough to establish the work as a modern parable, but then come yo-yos, beanie caps with little propellers, and vaudeville references for half-hearted sight gags that don't connect. It sometimes seems that Groag doesn't know how to handle Logue's combination of classically rich dialogue with anachronistic references both lyrical ("a moonlit cubist dew") and cloddishly colloquial ("good riddance to bad rubbish").

Obligatory bolts of silk are unfurled to suggest the sea, and the triteness of this particular modern-theatrical effect might be excused if it weren't one of the more memorable images that War Music has to offer.

War Music will run at ACT through April 26. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 749-2228 or go to www.act-sf.org.