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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, July 28, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

James DeVita stars as The Poet in The Rep's production of "An Iliad." (PHOTO: Michael Brosilow)

"An Iliad" at The Rep is a classic story of battle, blood and bodies


Great theater is about telling a story, and it's hard to find a much cooler story than "An Iliad," the epic poem by Homer.

The retelling of that poem, "An Iliad," is the latest entry in the The Milwaukee Rep season, and it's a performance that will leave you breathless. It runs through March 23.

There is a moment in this production when the narrator, played with passion and precision by James DeVita, recites from memory all the wars that have ever been fought.

The Crusades and the War of the Roses, to various Mongolian and Viking invasions all the way up to Libya and Syria.

The drama of this moment is sharp as we watch DeVita run through war after war until he nears the end and is overwhelmed by the litany of cruelty and inhumanity. He buries his head in his hands, a curdling testimony to what war hath wrought upon lives and souls.

"An Iliad" is not merely a reading of Homer's poem. This is a modern man telling the story of the Trojan War, the 10-year battle between the Greeks, who want to get Helen back, and the soldiers of Troy who kidnapped her.

DeVita seems world-weary from telling this story over the centuries, but when he warms to his task, he is full of verve and delight. DeVita has the audience in the palm of his hand and carries them along on a tale of murder, vengeance, intrigue and blood spilled on the field of battle.

Along the way, DeVita manages to briefly inhabit players as diverse as Achilles; Hector; Andromache, who is Hector's wife; Patroclus, Achilles' best friend who dies in battle; and Paris, who stole Helen in the first place.

DeVita's storytelling is tagged by his muse, cellist Alicia Storin, who is imaginatively projected on the back wall behind a scrim. She fades in and out, seemingly at first to augment or give emphasis to the story DeVita tells.

But when listening closely, you find yourself marveling at the same story being told twice: once by the dark and compelling dialogue, and again by the spectacular score created by sound designer Josh Schmidt.

What I found was that the two storytellers were almost in competition with each other, trying to make sure we understood that we got it and that we grasped what an awful thing war is.

There is no moral judgment here about the causes of war. What we get is a vivid and fearless tale about how horrible war really is. There are no glories. There are no heroes. There are only sufferers and pained warriors and families ripped apart by bloodshed.

DeVita is alone on a stage, and Storin is alone on a wall. He has a bottle of tequila. She has a cello. He is frantic. She is serene. She looks at him. He gestures to her.

They are a theatrically spectacular couple, bound not by love or sex, but by an urgency to get something important out of the shadows and into the light.

This is a very moving play, the kind of thing that truly gets under your skin and makes you think about the world around you.

DeVita, locked into a glorious crumbling city designed by Andrew Boyce, goes slowly as he explains the tortuous route of the war. It's been nine years since it began, and everyone is tired of fighting and tired of death. They want to go home.

But the most important question of all comes when DeVita stands alone in a dark stage with just a single spotlight on him.

"How do you know when you've won?"


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