“The Iliad” Comes to the Stage with Physical Theater

11 undergraduate and graduate students act out multiple roles, including sets and props, in the Homeric tale of mortals and gods for Annie Loui’s production of “The Iliad: Menin (Rage).” As Drama professor and head of the Movement Component of the MFA program at UCI, Loui directs and produces shows for her group, Counter Balance Theater, in which actors’ bodies transform into scenes, objects and animals, as well as traditional characters.

“Playing multiple characters and making set pieces with your body opens up actors to impulses they might not have otherwise,” said Nick Manfredi, a third-year MFA actor who plays Zeus among other roles. Loui’s philosophy enables actors to use their bodies in these multitudinous ways and allows physicality to convey more than dialogue alone.

Besides the ways physical theater helps hone an actor’s expressiveness, it can also provide innovative special effects. Gods enter and exit scenes with help from other actors who lift them into the air and whisk them to and fro in a dancing embrace. In battle scenes where chariots circle, one rider on their knees holds the arms of another actor playing the horse who trots and drags him around. These devices forgo the need for elaborate props and schemes to evoke the necessary visuals for such a fantastical and action-packed story.

In a story as old and well-known as “The Iliad,” actors can interpret and embody characters in new and refreshing ways. This adaptation, made by Loui from the Stephen Mitchell translation, only includes the epic’s first eight books (of the 24). Loui selected these passages based on scenes and images she could visualize, and as a result, the play is driven largely by physical action.

“I thought that this was the perfect way to bring this story to life, for the Humanities Core Course, for those studying the Iliad, studying the Classics and thinking about Greek mythology; [it is] particularly for when people are being introduced to it and think of it as something dry and distant, they come to this physical theater production and it feels like a comic book come to life,” said Loui.

The play opens with the iconic, titular lines —“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses” — and then briskly introduces the Trojan War. In a whirlwind, viewers see Paris choose Aphrodite in a contest of beauty and subsequently, kidnap Helen of Troy, wife to the Greek prince Menelaus, sparking years of battle. One might expect a somewhat steady, monotonous pace to match the thousand-page epic, but Loui’s production expedites entire conversations and interactions through emotive body language and cuts endless lists of ships and names from Homer’s text in favor of more action-packed scenes.

While perfectly choreographed battle sequences full of flying arrows, one-on-one combat and chariot races (complemented by sound effects and a theatrical score) offer thrills, the play’s true depth comes from the retelling of a readymade drama. Relationships — between lovers, enemies, companions, jealous leaders — are at the crux of the action and the story’s transcendent quality. “The Iliad: Menin” fits Claire Trevor’s theme of “Them” by depicting what Loui describes as the “perfect them versus us story.” Gods and mortals alike engage in behavior that is relatable to modern audiences. Their petty personal grievances and desires are heightened to dramatic interactions that often result in physical altercations, but characters themselves speak and react in ways that are universally understood.

“Doing something this ancient and ubiquitous, we can play with people’s expectations and knowledge,” said Thomas Vargas who plays Calchas, Paris and Diomedes. “We’re only covering the first eight books, starting with Achilles ceasing the fighting and it ends when he comes back… It’s more powerful to not end [the play] where you expect it.”

The play ends on a hopeful note with Hector reassuring his soldiers that they will achieve victory in battle at dawn. The final scene entertains a sense of optimism but also dramatic irony for viewers who have read “The Iliad” and know the tragic fate of the Trojans. As original as Loui’s vision of “The Iliad” is, there remains a determinate nature to the story with the inevitable doom and futility of facing the gods.

“The play is really about the persistence of rage and conflict in the midst of change and hope,” said Vargas. “It’s bittersweet, because everyone knows the true ending of ‘The Iliad.’”

There will be five performances of “The Iliad: Menin (Rage)” from October 13-15 in the Winifred Smith Hall, as well as two after-panels with scholars from the School of Humanities and the artistic team.