Keeping the classics fresh onstage is a Herculean labor. Ideally the best interpretations combine fresh insight and inspired stagecraft. Two current productions —“Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage” at Oberon and “An Iliad” at the Paramount Center —respectively demonstrate what to avoid and what to embrace in adapting famous texts. The “Beowulf” at Oberon, often silly but virtually never inspired, misses opportunities to explore what it means to be a hero. “An Iliad, “riveting and sublime throughout, brilliantly sends up conventional notions of heroism as it questions the dangerous fascination of many men with war itself.
“Beowulf,” billed as a ‘songplay’ by Banana Bag & Bodice, seems to suffer from a structural identity problem. One moment it tries to be a cute debating panel trio playing with the Old English epic but never reaching any strong conclusions about its title hero and why modern audiences should find his actions compelling and still timely. At another moment the playing of talented musicians-especially Brian McCorkle on piano who doubles impressively as King Hrothgar and Mario Maggio, who provides klezmer spirit on clarinet —makes Dave Molloy’s music —derivative of Kurt Weill —and Jason Craig’s unenlightening lyrics seem better than they are. If only author Craig-fairly one dimensional as the title warrior —had questioned Beowulf’s unrelieved macho demeanor and his possibly homophobic “Don’t touch me!” warning to the show’s easy-going Hrothgar, perhaps this “Beowulf” could have become a rich send-up of belligerence instead of a disappointing diversion.
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. Oberon, American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, through May 5.617-547-8300 or amrep.org.
By contrast, “An Iliad” brings new understanding to Homer’s unique and pioneering examination of both the war between two nations and the inner wars between violent and peaceful human impulses. Out actor Denis O’ Hare (Tony winner for “Take Me Out” and a regular on HBO’s “True Blood”) and Lisa Peterson have adapted Robert Fagles’ translation with attention to both the drama and the poetry of the text. O’Hare, dressed in what look like a long soldier’s coat and boots, laces his vivid text with Greek phrases that connect with the Trojan War and Homer’s original epic.
Yet make no mistake: “An Iliad,” as the word ‘an’ suggests, is a reflective adaptation that means to demonstrate the enduring and universal truths of its source. With quick changes of voice and body language, gifted O’Hare-under Peterson’s own direction —becomes the various leaders and key characters —haughty and stubborn Agamemnon, alternately bitter, fatalistic and sadistic Achilles and duty-bound and sometimes overly hopeful Hector. He also conveys the allure of Helen, the pain of Queen Hecuba, the vulnerability of Hector’s wife Andromache and the determination of Patroclus to disguise himself as Achilles to protect the man he loves. At various points, he connects past and present in terms of the great human toll of war —most powerfully in a cumulatively powerful catalogue of wars through millennia all the way to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“An Iliad” is the kind of landmark play that should be seen all over the world as both an inspired adaptation of an always timely classic and a tour de force evocation by a world class actor of human aggression in all its facets. Ulysses eventually finds home, and Homer’s amazing wisdom finds full expression in O’Hare’s blisteringly beautiful performance.
An Iliad, presented by Arts Emerson at Paramount Center, Boston, through May 4.617-824-8400 orwww.artsemerson.org
Stefanie Powers actually worked with Hollywood legend Tallulah Bankhead in the British 1965 movie “Die! Die! My Darling!” (entitled “Fanatic” in England). How fitting that the television star (“Hart to Hart”) and musical talent (the luminous recent revival of “Sunset Boulevard” at Ogunquit Playhouse) should take over the role of her outspoken co-star in the 2010 Broadway play “Looped” by out author Matthew Lombardo when Valerie Harper became too sick to continue in her Tony Award-nominated performance. Powers recently spoke to Bay Windows about Bankhead, Harper, the role and the play, now at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through Sunday.
“Valerie and I are friends,” she noted, “and they (the producers) had booked this tour way before they knew anything was wrong.” Of the connection with Bankhead, she admitted, “It’s bizarre in a way and in some respects extremely helpful.” Powers reflected, “She (Bankhead) suffered the consequences for her rapier-like wit. She lived life the only way she could.” Speaking of her versatility, Powers added,” She had a radio show that was second only to Bob Hope’s in popularity.” In stressing that this is a three-character play and not a one-woman bio-drama, she remarked, “It’s very much a show that has a beginning, a middle and an end.” Besides a technician involved with the title looping or redubbing of a line of Tallulah’s dialogue in “Die!Die!My Darling!”-something that actually happened, there is an invented person-a film editor named Danny Miller (played by Danny Miller) enthralled with her. “He is at all times a foil for her wit,” Powers concluded.
The 17th annual Independent Reviewers of New England Awards proved a big night for LGBT fare. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of the very gay-friendly musical “Avenue Q,” the biggest winner Monday night at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama, took home five small stage honors-best musical, best director (Spiro Veloudos), best actress (Erica Spyres), best music director (Catherine Stornetta) and best puppetry (Rick Lyon). Bad Habit Productions’ staging of “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” —the Off-Broadway hit play by out writer Moises Kaufman, the other small stage big winner, won four IRNE’s —best small stage production of a play, best director (Liz Fenstermaker), best actor (out performer John Geoffrion) and best ensemble.
In the sole tie of the evening, gay authors Joe Byers and Burgess Clark were cited for best new play, small stage. Byers was honored for “The Fakus: A Noir,” an atmospheric 50’s style play about three competing con artists which received a Centastage premiere at the BCA. Clark, artistic director at Boston Children’s Theatre, won his IRNE for “Reflections of a Rock Lobster,” a heartfelt adaptation of the book by gay writer Aaron Fricke —which BCT premiered at the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion. Both Clark and gay actor Ian Shain, who received his own young performer IRNE playing Fricke, praised Fricke, who wrote about his successful court battle to take his boyfriend to his school prom.
Gay actor-director James Tallach was the recipient of the Kenneth A. MacDonald Award for Theatre Excellence as founder of Young Actors Festivals. Mimi Huntington received a special citation “for 25 years of innovative theater and her support of the woman’s voice at Nora Theatre.” Repertoire at Nora during her tenure as artistic director ranged from “Moon for the Misbegotten” to the lesbian love-themed “Stop Kiss.” A special ensemble award went to the cast of the 2010-2012 Gloucester Stage Company production of the Alan Ayckbourn trilogy “The Norman Conquests,” helmed by out artistic director Eric Engel. Engel received the best mid-sized production IRNE for GSC’s staging of “Master Harold and the Boys.”
Small stage visiting production and performer honors both went to “Green Eyes.” The Tennessee Williams play, produced by Chris Keegan and the Project, was presented by Company One at the Ames Hotel. Erin Markey won acting IRNE playing a sultry Southern belle. Out choreographer Larry Sousa took home large stage honors for his work on the Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Huntington Theatre Company earned three large stage IRNE’s for its production of the Off Broadway hit revival of “Our Town” by closeted gay author Thornton Wilder at the Calderwood Pavilion —best production of a play, best director (David Cromer, who directed it Off-Broadway) and best supporting actor (Nael Nacer).
Looped, tour at Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through May 5.617-824-8000 or www.aestages.org
The complete list of 2013 IRNE Award winners is available at Facebook.
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