Oh, the mortals are restless! Achilles the Greek is furious because his boss, Agamemnon, has made grave mistakes in war and women. He becomes more crazed when he learns that his Trojan enemy, Hector, has slaughtered his best bud Patroclus. Great warriors all, in a tremendously bloody war. And it started over love for a woman.
It’s all there, in “Rage of Achilles,” a bold, clever and sometimes confusing world premiere being produced by Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company, which presents a classic in many regional parks during the summer, and another inside a theater.
Not exactly a classic this time, at Drexel’s Black Box Theater, but a neat spin on one. “Rage of Achilles” is by Paul Parente, a founding member of Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company and by now, an expert on Homer’s Iliad, I suspect. His play is taken from the core of that epic poem beginning with its ninth book, when things get really hot and the Greeks and Trojans brawl it out.
But “Rage of Achilles” is not a retelling of the tale. In the fashion of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which is delivered by two minor characters in “Hamlet,” Parente tells his Iliad tale chiefly through two incidental characters who become primary to the story. Dimitri and Thano (the splendid Adam Altman and Charlotte Northeast) are spies for the Greeks, and they trade their information with Dius (J. Hernandez, also excellent), a mole for someone the play never clarifies. Since the Greek militia is composed of many factions, it could be anyone.
The Iliad is a sprawling story, and catching us up – who rivals who, plus whys and hows – means that Parente must climb to the top of a mountain of details to make “Rage of Achilles” understandable. He does this well, stumbling occasionally along the way.
It’s not easy to figure out just how one spy deceives another at a certain point, and some of the heady Iliad story (as well as the myths the characters often refer to) gets creamed in its elisions. But the real mark of Parente’s success is his ability to make the details authenticate the story, not support it. As a result, you may need a program to determine the players, but not to understand the overall storyline. (A tip, though: During intermission, check out a small display in the lobby that gives you an Iliad family tree, with concise descriptions of the major characters.)
In fluid and thoughtful direction by Damon Bonetti, the two-act play unfolds steadily and, in its violent scenes (Ian Rose is fight director), bracingly. These spies spend much of their time listening and watching and indulging in small talk, but become a part of the action when Agamemnon (John Lopes) takes the stage to plot his course directly before us and Achilles (a somewhat subdued Nathan Foley, which makes him even more threatening) rages on.
Rosemarie McKelvey’s simple costumes of warrior garb and everyday scruff evoke the ancients well, and much of the cast is smeared in fake dirt for undeniable earthiness. Parente includes characters straight out of Homer: the herald (Eric Scotolati) whose history of delivering bad news makes him doubt his abilities; the slave (Anna Zaida Scannell Szapiro) who’s a lightning-rod for jealousy among the men, and the Trojan patriarch Priam (Brian Anthony Wilson).
Parente has given them contemporary speech. “I could have been a good dancer,” says one spy to the other, as they figure out their next move. “No,” answers the other, “you were terrible.” And so it goes between the lines of The Iliad, where Parente’s characters, comment on, worry over and deconstruct The Big Picture that Homer offers, and a Greek chorus sometimes invokes the details in what feels like Homer’s poetry.
“Rage of Achilles,” produced by Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company, runs through August 22 at the Black Box Theater in URBN Annex, 3401 Filbert St. commonwealthclassictheatre.org.