'An Iliad' aims to make the Trojan War relevant to today's world

Denis O'Hare's campaign to write and perform a solo play based on "The Iliad" has now lasted almost as long as the Trojan War itself.

He began writing "An Iliad" in 2005 with his director and co-author, Lisa Peterson. Now they're bringing their 100-minute distillation of Homer's 24-chapter poem about the epic ancient struggle to L.A. for the first time, starting Jan. 15 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

O'Hare will make his L.A. stage debut after more than 25 years of acclaim on Chicago and New York City stages, including a 2003 Tony Award playing a baseball-besotted accountant in Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out."

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"The Iliad," set in the ninth year of the 10-year siege of Troy, begins with the Greek fighting machine Achilles feeling fed up for his own egotistical reasons. Meanwhile, the peace-loving Trojan hero, Hector, though determined to defend his city, has had more than his fill of bloodshed.

Unlike these two chief characters, O'Hare's mood hasn't been dimmed nor his zest curtailed by the unusually long haul he's had trying to conceive, perfect and perform the show. Part of what's fueled him is the hope that "An Iliad" might actually advance the cause of nonviolence in some small way — although that's a point on which he and co-creator Peterson don't quite agree.

"I'm unabashedly antiwar and I would call myself a pacifist," O'Hare said in a recent interview. "My hope would be to effect change. I think it's difficult to see this play and not question the validity of war."

O'Hare had planned to originate "An Iliad" himself, but his television career unexpectedly took off as its 2010 premiere approached, and other actors stepped in for the first round of productions. Among the roles sidetracking him were the elegant vampire he played in HBO's "True Blood" and a recurring part as a judge on CBS' "The Good Wife." Now he's the butler to Jessica Lange's head witch on the FX show "American Horror Story: Coven."

He'll also be seen as a closeted gay aide to New York City Mayor Ed Koch in the coming HBO adaptation of "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer's fiery 1985 play attacking government indifference during the first phase of the AIDS epidemic.

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Meanwhile, O'Hare will soon take "An Iliad" to upcoming arts festivals in Australia and New Zealand, knowing that the play, which has reaped consistent praise from critics and recent return engagements in Chicago and Minneapolis (where it was performed by other actors), could turn into a signature part he'll be able to revisit for years to come.

The story of "An Iliad" began when Peterson, having recently ended her 10-year run as a resident director shepherding new plays for L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, saw a need for fresh theater works addressing what it means to be a nation at war.

Now based in New York City, she asked her friend O'Hare to help her sift through "The Iliad" in hopes of retelling it in a way that would honor the language and spirit of the original, yet be accessible and palpably current to Americans at a time when U.S. forces were trying to dodge IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He was a real activist, politically loud and unafraid and articulate," Peterson recalled in a separate interview — qualities she thought would help drive a play intended to get Americans thinking deeply about the consequences of going to war.

Lines from the late Princeton classicist Robert Fagles' crisp, energetic 1990 verse translation of "The Iliad" make up about a third of the play. The rest is conversationally spoken riffs O'Hare and Peterson devised to condense the telling and lend it contemporary urgency and accessibility.

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While burrowing into Fagles' translation, they turned on a video camera to improvise sequences in 21st century American vernacular, then transcribed the best bits and wove them into the play. An onstage bassist accompanies the performance in an echo of the musical adornment the ancient bards who first told the story are said to have used.

While O'Hare heeded the siren's call of television, Hans Altwies performed the 2010 premiere at Seattle Repertory Theatre. O'Hare also got to see former "Angels in America" star Stephen Spinella and Chicago actor Timothy Edward Kane rehearse and perform "An Iliad" before his own turn finally came in 2012.

He had no qualms about stealing from them, and now that he's touring with "An Iliad," he's grateful that their difficulties with the demanding part offered a warning against potential burnout.

O'Hare leaped from a couch in the Broad Stage's upstairs lobby to illustrate one bit of artistic thievery. He became Achilles in a pork pie hat, doing a dance he credits to Altwies.