Perhaps it was a tribute to actor Hans Altwies that a woman in the audience stood up midway through An Iliad, during his climactic story about the battle between Achilles and Hector, and insisted that he stop the show.
"This is a war story," she complained. "And all—all of these people are getting sucked in... there are too many war stories." The woman didn't seem deranged, just spooked and overwhelmed. And not without cause: Altwies had sucked in the entire room with his masterful, one-man retelling of the battle of Troy. As he worked his way up the narrative crescendo of blood and rage, Altwies cast a tense spell over the entire theater (you literally could've heard a pin drop during his dramatic pauses), a spell his interlocutor was compelled to break.
Altwies begins An Iliad by materializing from a blackout on the nearly bare stage—a tall ladder, a table, a rack holding lighting instruments—looking like a mendicant poet from a Cormac McCarthy novel. He sits on an old suitcase wearing battered boots, a floppy hat, a bushy red beard, and a long wool coat over a frayed three-piece suit. Our storyteller was an eyewitness to the siege of Troy and is fated to wander the earth, retelling his "song" for different audiences in different countries until doomsday: "Back then, oh I could sing it. For days and nights. On and on, every battle, every old digression, I would sing and sing... in Alexandria I began to notice a few empty seats, but still I sang it... Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time."
Now he's just a battered old storyteller with a suitcase and a bottle of whiskey, switching between possessed Homeric incantations—sometimes in Greek—and halting colloquial talk, trying to explain the scale of the gory, grinding nine-year war:
The battlefield was just littered with bodies, and when you look at it you think, "Oh, well these are a bunch of bodies." But they're not just bodies—'cause this is, this is Jamie and this is Matthew and this is Brennan and this is Paul. This is Scottie. He was 19, he was 21, he was 18. Brennan was meant to go to Oxford—he had gotten a scholarship because of his writing—his father was only a postman, he would have been the first child in his whole family ever to go to university—but he didn't...
Altwies manages his character's mercurial turns with grace and ease—he's an unusually engaged actor who thinks through every word and holds each beat with a firm emotional and physical grip. (I first noted his phenomenal control five years ago in a Seattle Shakespeare Company production of Romeo and Juliet where he gave the most electrifying Queen Mab speech I ever expect to see.) Altwies has only grown more sure-footed and commanding with age, even when interrupted by a spooked audience member. Altwies had to talk her down himself: The stage manager tried to call the house manager to escort her out, but the radio wasn't working. "I'm just a storyteller," he said. "It's just a story." He offered to meet with her after the show, but said the rest of us wanted to hear the end of the story (true), and the overwhelmed woman left. Hopefully, Altwies will take her consternation as a compliment—done right, live theater still has the power to freak people out in violent, visceral ways.
This world-premiere production, directed by Lisa Peterson and coadapted by Peterson and Denis O'Hare, closes out a very successful season at the Seattle Rep. The Elizabethan cliffhanger of Equivocation, the queer high-school comedy and drama of Speech & Debate, the copresentation of Steppenwolf's August: Osage County at the Paramount, the high string-quartet tension of Opus, the magnificence of Glengarry Glen Ross and August Wilson's Fences—the Rep has gone from strength to strength. (We will pass over its season opener, a farcical re-creation of Hitchcock's film The 39 Steps, in silence.)
And if there's any justice in the universe, An Iliad will tour to (and spook) audiences across the country for years to come.