“The point is, Helen’s been stolen.”
Thus spake the Poet, played by Iason Togias, delivering a 90-minute solo version of one of the foundational works of Western literature, “The Iliad.” Directed by Conor Bagley, who co-produced with Susannah Clark and Annie Ottati, “An Iliad” runs through June 9 in the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lab I, a 60-seat black-box space in the renovated art-deco movie house on H Street NE.
Is he Homer, author of the epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”? Named for Ilium, another name for the Bronze Age city of Troy in what is now Turkey, “The Iliad” recounts an episode in the 10th year of the Trojan War, a conflict that occurred several hundred years before “The Iliad” acquired its final form, probably in the 8th century B.C.
Though this bard isn’t blind, he has a beard like the Homer we know from busts — a dark one, for he is young. Casually dressed, he speaks ancient Greek on occasion but is otherwise completely American, familiar with 21st-century urban frustrations, something of an alcoholic and seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Before the Poet appears, tapping his mobile phone to find the theme music from the movie “Troy,” we listen to the Muse, Matt Chilton, another young, bearded man, as he plinks an upright bass onstage, later plucking and bowing along with the Poet’s animated narration and often humorous digressions.
The concept is meant to recall how the original poems were presented, sung and partially improvised to the accompaniment of a lyre (the root of the term “lyric”), though the set of a cluttered desk and file cabinets — with a few white drapes — represents a modern writer’s lair.
Or possibly a dorm room. Both Togias and Bagley graduated from Yale College in 2016.
Bagley is the son of Georgetown resident, Georgetown University Law School graduate and Democratic fundraiser Elizabeth Bagley, who served in diplomatic positions in the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations.
Togias’s performance is a triumph of memorization and endurance. Expressing the rage that is the theme of the play (and, to some extent, the poem), he curses and rants as the Greek warrior Achilles, at King Agamemnon and at his Trojan rival Hector, and as Agamemnon and Hector back at Achilles. He also conjures up battle scenes and intimate moments involving such characters as Hector’s wife Andromache, his father, King Priam, and Helen (“Whore that I am”), initial cause of the decade of bloodshed.
We learn of the gods’ manipulation of events and are reminded of plot twists that may send some of us back to our college copy of the book. After all this time, the Poet himself has trouble remembering details. At the show’s climax, searching for the name of a battle, he pulls file after file out of a cabinet, dropping them to the stage as he recites an extended litany of wars and invasions from ancient times to the present, finally collapsing traumatized. (The Muse picks him up like a wounded comrade, moving him to a chair to recover.)
“It’s too much, all those songs,” he states, exhausted and disillusioned, deciding not to go on to describe the Trojan Horse deception, the merciless destruction of Troy and the long return home of Odysseus told in “The Odyssey.”
Written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare (the Vampire King of Mississippi in HBO’s “True Blood”), with reference to Robert Fagles’s 1990 translation, “An Iliad” premiered at New York Theatre Workshop in the spring of 2012. Produced in D.C. the following season at Studio Theatre, it has had productions around the country since then. In 2015, Peterson and O’Hare’s take on the Bible, “The Good Book,” premiered at Chicago’s Court Theatre.