Arts & Events

Around & About: Theater Review:
The Iliad by Inferno Theatre at Berkeley City Club

By Ken Bullock
Monday March 21, 2011 - 02:38:00 PM

Going to our seats in the Berkeley City Club, amid the pre-acting: the players making music on accordion, guitar, while someone's bathing in a metal washtub, while soldiers in camouflage trousers and camp followers sprawl out, lounging in the lull between battles ... Then power chords on the guitar. A soldier brings in the weapons and gear: bamboo poles, parasols ... another paws a woman ... Drums, war cries, attitudinizing ... Ululation of the women; the soldiers shimmy and gyrate in a provocative Oriental dance ... Boots and cowboy hat in the hands of another, who puts them on, then dons shades, and rouges lips ... 

And the carnage begins: bamboo poles as pikes and javelins, parasols as shields ... Still, not a word of dialogue. The figure in dark glasses licks the other end of a feather duster—and it becomes a deadly arrow, winging to its mark. Finally, two figures in gas masks stand alone, above figures stretched out again, but this time in death ... 

And the first word—an order: "Take off your mask!" Agamemnon and Achilles survey the damage on the plain of Troy ... We should end the invasion and go home, declares Achilles—and his commander rages: The situation's under control! 

The Greeks had three myths of fracture between the West and East: the rape of Europa, the theft of the Golden Fleece—and Helen's abduction, leading to the Trojan War. 

Giulio Perrone's Inferno Theatre remounts Homer's tale of The Iliad, the wrath of Achilles, following its story, but conflating it with other, more contemporary burn-outs, invasions of futility in the Middle East ... a common enough conceit these days, but Inferno achieves it without archness. Capturing the Homeric satire of the Olympian gods playing with mortals in a sarcastic current version of classical irony—when Athene cartwheels out to restrain Achilles from striking Agamemnon, tossing him like a wrestler, the hero looks at the svelte goddess in sunglasses, wondering who she is; "The Agency sent me," she says, "I'm one of those you used to call gods"—and Achilles barks out: "Just a watchdog, then!"—Perrone's script (he wrote, directed and designed the show, excepting Michael Palumbo's splendid lights) and its stylized realization discover a dynamic flexibility that fuses modern mayhem and cynicism with the tragic cosmic perspective of antiquity into a volatile image ... if just for a moment, the moment we're watching. 

Perrone, best-known in the Bay Area as a set designer, worked in Italy at Jerzy Grotowski's theater research center, later directed Dell'Arte School—that excellent academy in movement theater arts—near Eureka, and staged Galileo's Daughters last year at the City Club, Inferno's first production. 

That was a lovely, meandering show with a parabolic storyline; The Iliad is often frantic, with great dynamic shifts, relentlessly following Homer's plot, in a race to the tragic conclusion. There's time for an idyllic moment between Achilles and Patroclus before the slaughter, as Athene seduces Hector away from Andromache and back to the battleground in a dream; no time for the chase around the walls of Troy before the Grecian hero does the Trojan in. 

An excellent international cast—Gulshirin Dubash, Julie Douglas, Evan Johnson, Helga Rosenfeld-Olsen and Jamie Van Camp—join Inferno's spectacular Valentina Emeri and Simone Bloch in a constant quick-change of character to play a multitude. Inferno knows how to perform spectacle—not in the diluted Anglo-Saxon sense of a big, empty explosion of noise and lights, but in the sense of materializing a moving picture in the real space right in front of the spectators' eyes, and in their nerves, their thinking ... and the sheer joy of realizing that act, as much as any story or message. 

There's a transcendental moment—only a moment—right out of James Joyce's 18th century inspiration, Giambattista Vico, or a modern philosopher like Bergson, when Calchas the soothsayer intones to the audience about new possibilities inserted in time, "images of new realities reflected in the infinite past"—and a brooding recitative over a sometimes wheezy, voiceless accordion about the speaker going "to Ground Zero ... still a terrible sight ... but only two buildings—imagine having to restore a whole country." 

Against other tentative, loosely anachronistic adaptations of Homer's merciless depiction of war—like ACT's spoiled staging of Christopher Logue's excellent poem in imitation of the blind bard—Inferno's Iliad unites the remote spaces of past with the claustrophobic present in a real glimpse of humanity, not a fable of otherworldly figures from storybooks or TV and movie screens. In other words, real, immediate theater.