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Guy Roberts as the Poet and Jessica Boone (left) and Fanette Ronjat (right) as the Muses in Main Street Theater's An Illiad.

I was wondering how Main Street Theater would adapt one of Homer’s very long poems to the stage. An Iliad, MST's riff on the original, seemed like such a daunting task—an epic in a such a small space! But Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s incisive adaptation weaves some of the familiar aspects of Homer’s work into a mesmerizing and moving meditation on the ravages of war, whether ancient or contemporary. It is quite a ride.

Lasting over an hour and a half with no intermission, this fascinating take on the politics and victims of the Trojan War never lags, and that is because of Guy Roberts’ tour de force performance that will take your breath away. (He also co-directs this show with Rebecca Greene Udden). His mercurial transformations as the Poet (who might also be a victim of PTSD) dramatize characters ranging from the enraged Achilles to the noble Hector to sultry Helen (described as just “being more beautiful than someone else”) to the pitiful Priam. This procession of characters is a master class in classical acting, and his range of movement is formidable: one minute almost balletic, the next, bordering on violent, the next, rhapsodic.

But Roberts does not stop there. He improvises and employs contemporary commentary alongside a conversational intimacy with the audience that interprets The Iliad not as simply a museum piece to be endured as part of one’s “education,” but as a universal narrative that both betrays the insane motives of the Trojan War and the tragic components of all wars. You sense the irony of a poet who wrote so many lines about war actually crafting a paean to pacifism.  

In addition to Guy Roberts’ wristwatch-wearing, knapsack-wielding, bullet-carrying Poet, there is an invocation to not one but actually two disquieting Muses: Jessica Boone and Fanette Ronjat, who provide eerie Greek lyrics and live music. But make no mistake, Guy Roberts is really the force that fuels this entire show. His acting is one in which form follows function, and his physical movements are in acute synchronicity with every line he delivers. He is a thrill to watch, whether embodying the cruel prissiness of Agamemnon or the psychotic rage of Achilles or, well, the Poet himself, caught between the pressures of performing as a bard and the improvisation required to connect with his immediate audience.

With a war-ravaged set (Marketa Fantova and Adam Thornton) filled with crumbling columns and anachronisms such as gasoline cans, modern chairs, ladders, and even flasks, the audience’s closeness to the Poet makes the show less a literary exercise in elevated language and chauvinism, and more a personal, confessional story conveying the violence and pathos of war. There is always a risk of something like this falling into predictable preachiness or self-congratulatory political correctness—but this never happens in An Iliad. Instead, you realize the necessity of theater to contribute to philosophy and politics, with the stage always doing a better job than statistics, talking heads, or policy papers at dramatizing the stakes of something.

The Poet asks, “What was it that drove them to fight?” and then you get to imagine the excruciating truth: It is the gods, and man is just their reality television show they don’t want to end—their “entertainment.” When Roberts’ lists the names of the dead as contemporary American boys’ names and says “I knew those boys,” you have to be one cold customer to dismiss his grief. This play is dead serious, but with comic relief. One minute you are wrapping your head around the profundity of a line such as, “Gods—they don’t die, they change.” The next you are laughing at Roberts shouting, “F***king give Helen back!” and reminding us that this is what everyone is thinking about the Trojan War anyway. 

Really, this production does the impossible in making the epic less remote. The music makes the message more suspenseful, more intense. It is psychological inquiry of the highest order—the rage of Achilles happens to be the Achilles’ heel we all have: “We think, 'That’s not me,'” the Poet tells us. “But we all, all of us, are like that. It’s some trick in our blood: rage.”  The Poet forces us to imagine Achilles and Hector having a normal conversation; the hideousness of their deaths is palpable, visceral, tragic.

Just as Emily Wilson‘s recent contemporary translation of The Odyssey has shaken up the literary world and everything you thought you knew about that journey, this relevant, stirring, and sophisticated rendition of Homer’s tale of Troy will unsettle everything you think about war—or death. Houston’s theater season, thanks to Guy Roberts, is off to an epic start this year.

Thru Jan. 14. Tickets from $39. Main Street Theater – Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. More info and tickets at mainstreettheater.com.

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