From truth to sleuth: Reviews of An Iliad and The Hound of the Baskervilles

Gorilla amazes, Jobsite mildly entertains with their latest offerings.

ONE-MAN WONDER: Brendan Ragan is first rate in An Iliad, an adaptation of Homer’s epic. - Gorilla Theatre/Desiree Fantal
Gorilla Theatre/Desiree Fantal
ONE-MAN WONDER: Brendan Ragan is first rate in An Iliad, an adaptation of Homer’s epic.

It’s not often  that I’m deeply affected by a one-person show, but Gorilla Theatre’s An Iliad grabbed me early and still hasn’t  let go. This near-perfect stage monologue isn’t just about Achilles and Hector and that crew; it’s about the strange animal aggression that we carry in our blood and that has made war a staple of human history for the last 4,000 years.

Think I overstate the infection? Then remember the violence that fills movies and television shows, that sells millions of units of video games to avid consumers, and that even has us transfixed by NFL football. An Iliad’s co-writers— Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare — want us to understand that it’s no coincidence that one of the fundamental documents of the Western canon is about  rage and massacre and dragging your dead enemy’s corpse behind your chariot. This is our story —if we’re not vigilant — and in case we’re missing the point, the speaker even offers, apropos of everything, a long catalogue of conflicts from Carthage to Rwanda. War isn’t out there — it’s in us. Homer knew it and so do the shrewdest producers in Hollywood.

When An Iliad begins, a Poet dressed in brown trousers, a trench coat, and a fedora, walks on stage and suddenly lets loose several verses in ancient Greek. But not to worry: the language of the play is mostly contemporary American English, and only occasionally will the Poet even quote directly from Robert Fagles’ fine translation of Homer’s epic.

In a comfortable vernacular, then, we’re told the story of the kidnapping of Helen, the attack on Troy by a Greek federation, and the anger of Achilles when his superior Agamemnon takes away his concubine Briseius. Repeatedly, the Poet uses up-to-date analogies to help us understand — as when he informs us that the Greek fleet came from locales as widely dispersed as Plano, Texas, and Lawrence, Kansas.

The Poet not only narrates, he plays parts — here he’s Hector, here his wife Andromache, and here he’s Astyanax, their son, frightened by his father’s helmet. Impersonating the Poet is Brendan Ragan, who, working with only a table and four chairs for a set, finds the ultimate in emotion in this familiar tale, and who isn’t averse to jumping on chairs and striding into the audience when he can make a point by doing so. As flawlessly directed by Ami Sallee, Ragan is tender, furious, grief-stricken, insane, plaintive, vicious — in short, brilliantly multifarious. What a stunning performance.

I first read the Iliad decades ago, and in later years I wondered why this long and complicated story set in a society far different from ours, and involving gods nobody believes in, should occupy such a prominent place in Western thought. Now, thanks to this production, I know the answer: War is in us. Always has been. And peace — which must be possible — depends, first of all, on our recognizing our troubled inheritance.

click to enlarge HOLMES BOYS: Performances by David Jenkins, Giles Davies and Shawn Paonessa highlight a dogged Hound of the Baskervilles. - Crawford Long/Jobsite Theater
Crawford Long/Jobsite Theater
HOLMES BOYS: Performances by David Jenkins, Giles Davies and Shawn Paonessa highlight a dogged Hound of the Baskervilles.

Kinetic fluff. Giles Davies, David Jenkins, and Shawn Paonessa must be the hardest-working actors in Florida this month. Playing a dozen roles in the fast-paced Hound of the Baskervilles, they run on- and offstage and in and out of costume so quickly, it’s amazing they don’t lift off the ground and start flying. Unfortunately, all this effort is devoted to a meaningless exercise that’s only occasionally funny and almost always irrelevant. Do we need a parody of a Sherlock Holmes novel? And shouldn’t a contemporary satire have some bearing on contemporary issues?

Jobsite Theater’s Hound has some high points — Davies as Cecile Stapleton in a long red dress is hilarious — and some low points — hokey meta-theatrical moments when the actors pretend to be speaking for themselves — but never has the pertinence of even a brief Saturday Night Live sketch. I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan, but after a while I found my thoughts wandering far outside the theater.

The story Hound (adapted by Peepolykus and Steven Canny) tells is pretty faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original. A mysterious hellhound is knocking off the Baskerville clan. Sherlock Holmes (Davies) sends Dr. Watson (Jenkins) to the Baskerville mansion to watch over Sir Henry Baskerville (Paonessa), who may be the canine’s next victim. Employing a transformable set by Brian Smallheer, and quickly-changed period costumes by Katrina Stevenson (also the show’s director), Watson and later Holmes track down the truth of the Baskerville curse while visiting a sauna, playing snooker, climbing around the moors, and meeting various suspects. There are jokes galore (hit and miss), abundant visual gags (sauna towels over suits), and nothing remotely at stake. All three actors are talented, with Davies turning in the most winning performance.

So, kudos to the actors for their heroic hijinks.

But surely there are better claims on our time.

An Iliad runs through Feb. 2 and can be seen at the  Springs Theatre, 8029 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa,  8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, $20-$25, 813-879-2914, Critic's rating: Five out of five stars.

The Hound of the Baskervilles also runs through Feb. 2 at the Straz Center’s Shimberg Playhouse, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, $28, 813-229-STAR, Critic's rating: Two out of five stars.

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