Let's be brutal here. When press invitations arrived for two separate openings of "An Iliad" at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village, this was not happy news.
It is one thing for two actors to choose to protect their stamina by alternating performances of this exhausting and intense 100-minute solo based on a new adaptation of Homer's ancient epic about the Trojan War. But it's quite another to contemplate hauling oneself downtown in the belly of the busy season to catch two actors -- no matter how much pleasure they have given us through the years -- present the same unproven piece on separate evenings.
So forgive me. I saw Denis O'Hare one night, Stephen Spinella the other, and, if an actor this good were added to the lineup, I would go again tonight.
First a word about "An Iliad" -- or, to be more precise, two Iliads. Director Lisa Peterson and O'Hare (a Tony-winning theater artist before the world knew him from "True Blood" and "American Horror Story") have been working on the thing for years. I can see why.
Part Homer, part original work based on improvisation, they created a character, a wandering minstrel called The Poet, who has been lugging the stories of man's wars from bar to town square to stage since the beginning of warfare. He is tired from centuries of senseless violence, but determined -- in quick-witted, almost offhand ways -- to remember the humanity of each corpse in the piles.
The stage is stripped almost raw to the back wall. Except for a bass player (the remarkable Brian Ellingsen) making angry and mournful noises from a catwalk, The Poet has just an old suitcase and abrupt changes of light and dark. Although the details are the war between Greece and Troy over Helen, he unforgettably spews the names of wars up to Syria.
O'Hare's Poet is tightly wound, dressed like a bum and almost feral with dark nervous energy. Spinella (the Tony-winning virtuoso in works by Tony Kushner) is natty, with the curly hair and beard off a Greek coin and the oratory expansiveness of a traveling 19th century actor.
Don't make me choose.
WHAT "An Iliad"
WHERE New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St.
INFO $70 for one, $100 for both; 212-279-4200; nytw.org
BOTTOM LINE Two gripping actors, two different nights, one odyssey