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Theatre Review: "An Iliad" at Ensemble "Will Stay With You"

Master theatrical storytellers Bruce Cromer and Michael Haney join with a smart, deeply resonating script and An Iliad at Ensemble Theatre is the “must-see” of the fall stage season.
 
This is a performance, a production and a play that will stay with you.
 
Cromer is dazzling in a solo show as an unnamed ‘poet’ who comes onto the stage with purpose. He’s a man with a story to tell. Specifically it’s the story of the Trojan War, first told by Homer in his epic poem “The Iliad” and re-told here by a character who was an eyewitness, but has come to us, tonight, to tell us about then and relate it to now. 
 
He inhabits a space lined with the stuff of theater – a house frame under construction suggesting a partially built set, shelving on both sides stacked with props and what could be storage for costumes and lighting.
 
Invoking the Muses (not entirely successfully), the poet takes the audience to the beginning of theater as we know it, to -- Myth? History? Drama? -- ancient Greece, to tell us of gods and men, of heroes and fools, of life and death. 
 
With the help of sound and light, Cromer and Haney mesmerize us with the art of storytelling. Like all good storytelling, we’re not there to sit back and merely be entertained. We are invited to engage, to use our imaginations to travel to the world of An Iliad.
 
We know the names – Greek hero Achilles, Helen of Troy, her feckless lover Paris, his honorable brother and legendary fighter Hector, their parents King Priam and Queen Hecuba, who suffer mightily. Cromer brings their story to life. 
 
Cromer transforms into a large cast of characters with a handful of props: a shawl, a scrapbook, a chair, a piece of blood-red cloth. That’s all he needs. This is a story that is primal, that reaches to the deepest parts of us. 
 
He plays all manner of men – it was a man’s world – but there are wives and mothers and even a goddess. There’s potent talk of how women share the suffering in war.
 
He guides us through the action with a great physicality. He bounds up a ladder to a platform so we can look down at a harbor below and we see it through the poet’s eyes. His body wrenches as he’s punished by invisible gods. He drives a chariot, runs from death, enacts a heart-pounding duel. He plays Trojan prince Hector holding his infant son before returning to battle.
 
A battlefield is created with language and imagination. The metal shields reflecting blindingly in the sun, the thrust of swords slicing through bodies. The carnage. Our mind’s eye sees that, too, maybe too easily because bodies fallen artistically on film and brutally on television news have de-sensitized us.
 
An Iliad wipes away the protective layer because these aren’t just bodies. Playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare give them names and lives. 
 
And as the nameless poet tells of the Trojan War, of course it’s every war. This one starts foolishly, as so many do. This one continues what seems like endlessly – nine years, not so long by today’s count – and for reasons that don’t entirely seem reasoned. In ancient Greece it could all be blamed on the capriciousness of the gods.
 
It gives you a lot to think about as you leave the theater – something “The Iliad” has done for 3,000 years.
 
An Iliad, through Nov. 2, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $28-$44, student $25, Children $18. $10 Try Us Out Tickets: Introductory offer for Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana residents who have never purchased tickets to Ensemble Theatre. Limit two $10 tickets per qualifying household. Valid first two weeks of performances. Limited quantity available, while supplies last. Available in person or by phone.513-421-3555 and www.ensemblecincinnati.org.
 
Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts