Milwaukee Rep's 'An Iliad' recounts the horrors of war

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James DeVita in The Milwaukee Rep's 'An Iliad.' -PHOTO: Michael Brasilow

You probably remember reading The lliad, Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War, in high school. Who could forget those 15 pages of Greek generals’ names?

Writers Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare somehow managed to extract a 90-minute, one-man play from the 600-page classic. An Iliad, a searing indictment against war, has been presented on numerous stages throughout the country as a tour de force for powerful actors.

The Milwaukee Rep has tapped James DeVita, arguably one of Wisconsin’s most formidable stage personalities, to star as “the poet” in a new production, which runs at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater through March 23.

“The playwrights have constructed the narrative as if I were there and have been doomed to tell this story for 3,000 years — or until mankind stops in engaging in warfare,” DeVita says.

The Iliad paints a vivid picture of the Trojan War in all its horrific details, with tales of bravery and cowardice, heroism and death. No details are spared in Homer’s accounts, says DeVita, who did extensive research in preparing for the role. There’s ample material for the playwrights to forge the saga into a compelling exploration of the universality of war.

The actor embodies “so many characters that I stopped counting,” DeVita says. The challenging role requires him to slip into and out of a variety of personae, often within seconds, as well as to engage in conversations between roles that he’s playing.

The play’s primary characters are fully realized roles, but secondary ones are mostly shadings, DeVita says. He tries to give each character unique physical characteristics to keep them distinguishable.

 “People carry themselves differently. Do they slouch, do they sit on their pelvis?” the actor asks. “I find the physical first, and the characteristics usually lend themselves to a sound, a voice or an auditory experience. I do that for each (character).”

DeVita credits director John Langs, who also directed him in the one-man biographical production In Acting Shakespeare at American Players Theatre a few seasons ago, with being an excellent sounding board for his characterizations. Langs pushes him to bring the shades and nuances of the various characters to life, DeVita says.

In playing the poet, DeVita appears on stage with cellist Alicia Storin, who acts as his “muse.” Her music modulates and directs the narrative flow.

In many moments of the play, the poet directly addresses the audience, shattering the so-called “fourth wall.” That can make audience members uncomfortable.

“You actually look in audience members’ eyes and tell them the story,” DeVita says. “It’s not the easiest thing to do as an actor, and you are completely exposed. It’s scary, and yet it’s really exciting, too.”

Fans of DeVita’s extensive work at APT and at various other Wisconsin theater companies might recognize some familiar “DeVita-isms” in his characterizations. But the actor promises that this material calls for new forms of expression that have required him to stretch beyond his previous limits.

“I hope I have created new characteristics, and I’m sure there are colors that I am using that I have used before,” he says. “There are things I have not done before that people will see in this play and John (Langs) has pushed me to bring these colors out.”

For DeVita, every play has a line of dialogue that he uses as a touchstone, some- thing that will bring him back to the narrative if he starts to stray. An Iliad has such a line, and it’s very cen- tral to the play’s purpose.

“‘Do you see what I am talking about?’ is something the character says at least a half-dozen times in the play,” DeVita says. “I always look for a line to go back to, and this one is it.”

The line nicely summarizes the meaning and purpose of An Iliad. If you see what DeVita as the poet is talking about and understand the horrors of war, then the playwrights and the actor have done their jobs in ways that would make Homer proud.

ON STAGE

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of An Iliad runs through March 23 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, 108 E. Wells St. Call 414-224-9490 or visit www.milwaukeerep. com.