An Iliad (Review)

Cromer gives an astonishing, memorable performance in ETC’s An Iliad

Bruce Cromer on the set of An Iliad
Bruce Cromer on the set of An Iliad

Critic's Pick

As the Poet in An Iliad, the just-opened production at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, actor Bruce Cromer says, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last.” Avid theatergoers should hope that’s not really the case, because Cromer’s performance is one of the most compelling you’re likely to see in many a season. Co-written by playwright Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare, An Iliad is derived from The Iliad, the epic poem about the Trojan War by the ancient Greek poet Homer, perhaps written around 850 B.C. The work’s 16,000 lines have been distilled into a script to be performed by one actor in about 100 intermissionless minutes. He is called upon to recreate a dozen or so characters from Homer’s sweeping epic — the professional warrior (and demigod) Achilles; the brave Trojan Prince Hector; Achilles’ protégé Patroclus; pretty boy Paris who lit the fuse on the war by stealing another man’s wife; the arrogant Greek King Agamemnon and his aged, disconsolate counterpart from Troy, King Priam; even several women, from the coquettish Helen and Hector’s steadfast wife Andromache; and a god or two, especially and humorously the fleet-footed Hermes, “a young man with fabulous sandals.”
But most memorably, Cromer portrays the Poet compelled to tell this tale over and over and over across the ages. From the play’s first moment, the rumble of thunder and a flash of lighting, his presence onstage is an incredible marriage of actor and material. Cromer is not simply portraying Homer, the blind poet, although he repeatedly asks us if we can see the devastation and futility of warfare, the compelling rage that drives such conflicts. He takes on postures that immediately convey heroic Achilles, conscientious Hector, coy Helen and ambitious Patroclus. But even more, using words in Ancient Greek as well as a powerful translation by Robert Fagles, Cromer’s Poet brings the horror and attraction of war vividly into view, painting lurid pictures with words and physical action. This is more than the story of the siege of Troy. At several moments, the Poet offers up litanies — of soldiers from locales around Greece in the era of the Trojan War, but expanding to wars across time and exemplified by cities across America; of wars from ancient times to this year’s strife in Gaza and Ukraine — expressing his agony and weariness at humanity’s seemingly unending appetite for battle and strife. Make no mistake, this play, full of the frenzy of combat and senseless devastation, is a condemnation of war.
But in Cromer’s skilled hands, the evening is both exhilarating and exhausting. He concludes the play wrung out and dripping with sweat, and — despite the fact we have witnessed the performance of only one actor — the audience feels that it has not just witnessed but also participated in agonizing mortal combat, agonizing decisions about life and death and the horrendous aftermath of these savage warriors. Cromer is utterly convincing in each detailed portrait he enlivens, bringing to bear every ounce of skill he has used in so many other memorable performances, from Scrooge at the Cincinnati Playhouse to King Lear at Cincinnati Shakespeare, with numerous stops in between. Playing the Poet is the culmination of years of acting experience.
Director Michael Evan Haney is Cromer’s able partner and coach in assembling this remarkable performance. It is apparent that he has helped the accomplished actor hone his delivery, and he keeps Cromer scrambling across Brian Mehring’s jumbled set of lumber, steps, ladders and three levels of jumbled detritus on both sides of the stage — chairs, windows, dress forms, the stuff of which theatrical performances are made. From elevated locations at the rear of the stage, we occasionally glimpse two Muses (clad in classical dresses and hair, vocalizing their inspiration and watching the action) played by Emily Scott and Deirdre Manning.
As the play concludes, the Poet, at the end of his rope, cries, “I can’t do this anymore.” But we know he will return to sing the tales of warfare again, just as surely as mankind will find itself in more conflict and combat. That’s a sad message, but it’s something to celebrate in its masterful retelling by this remarkable actor. His embodiment of Poet is an acting performance to cherish, one of the most powerful I have ever witnessed onstage. As the word about this powerful production spreads, I suspect tickets will be hard to come by. Get yours soon. People will be talking about this production for a long time.

AN ILIAD, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through Nov. 2.

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