By ANNE SIEGEL
SPRING GREEN, WI. – This summer, while audiences were flocking to the large, outdoor theater to view Shakespeare under the stars, another small miracle was taking place inside the intimate (200-seat) Touchstone Theatre. American Players Theatre (APT), which operates these two venues, welcomed far smaller crowds to see An Iliad.
The APT production dazzles with its power. Words such as “mesmerizing” and “gripping” don’t begin to describe the experience waiting here.
The play begins in an empty college classroom. Evidence suggests that some kind of attack has happened here. Not only are chairs overturned and papers scattered around, but there’s graffiti covering the walls. There’s also a long table which serves as a podium, and a dusty blackboard in the rear. On one side is a hanging, life-size skeleton. One can’t help but notice what appear to be bloodstains on the walls and floor.
COVID precautions made this small indoor theater even more intimate. Capacity in the Touchstone Theatre was capped at 25 percent. Even in late summer, just prior to this show’s closing, capacity was still very limited. For instance, all seats in the theater’s first row were (intentionally) empty. Audience members were strategically peppered throughout the remaining space. Small clumps of people were an attempt to maintain social distancing. Audience members were expectant: they were waiting for in-person theater to resume.
Some of those in the crowd may well have previously seen this drama. It was originally part of the company’s 2015 season, starring the same actor and musician. The duo also performed the show in 2014 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
As Jim DeVita (‘The Poet’) arrives onstage, he is dressed in a professorial-looking suit coat and carries a worn briefcase. As he picks up debris off the floor, DeVita begins telling the audience – now, his students – that he is presenting a modern take on Homer’s “The Iliad.” Playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare offer up an extremely relevant, touching and sometimes humorous tale, directed by John Langs.
As the poet begins, some of his early talk about warring sailors that have waged battle for nine years – to the point “where they have forgotten why they are fighting” – audiences couldn’t help but flash on the headlines about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The poet talks of gods from long ago, looking down from above, who observe these human endeavors for their amusement. There is talk of Achilles and Hector, King Agamemnon, and Priam, King of Troy, who must recover his son Hector’s body.
DeVita tells this tale seamlessly. His gestures and other body language is completely riveting. He engages the audience with a sense of quiet wonder at the events as he tells them. He seems quite at home in the Wisconsin wood, and he should be. DeVita has been acting as an actor and director here since 1995. He is now a core company member, and is married to the American Players Theatre artistic director, Brenda DeVita. His talents also range from playwrighting to children’s book-writing. A man of considerable intelligence and skill, DeVita puts it all on the line in this performance.
Accompanying him is Alicia Storin as a silent muse. Her cello music punctuates DeVita’s dialogue. Occasionally, the two briefly physically connect, as he moves her chair to a more advantageous position. Her music is composed by Josh Schmidt. Her presence adds a great deal to the theatricality of DeVita’s tale.
One may notice more theatricality in the superb set by Brian Sidney Bembridge, lighting design by Jesse Klug, and costumes by Holly Payne. DeVita and Storin received a well-deserved standing ovation for the performance viewed by this critic.
An Iliad runs one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission. The show ran from June 25-August 15. Other shows are running at American Players Theatre through mid-November. The shows are offered digitally and in-person during their respective runs. For more information, contact americanplayers.org.