Achilles on the Hudson

For four performances this month, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival will present “An Iliad” under its big tent at Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison.

Note the title. “The Iliad” is a work familiar to students — or at least it used to be — as an epic poem of the Trojan War by the blind ancient Greek bard Homer that’s been famously translated by the likes of Alexander Pope and Robert Fagles and adapted with varying degrees of success on stage (the Aquila Theatre Company’s brilliant “Iliad: Book One”) and screen (the middling but watchable “Troy”). (You could also make the case for “From Here to Eternity” being a modern “Iliad,” with Montgomery Clift as the hotheaded Achilles, Frank Sinatra as his tragic pal Patroclus and Burt Lancaster as the wily Odysseus.)

“An Iliad” is just that, another version of the epic, one for which adapters Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare scaled down Homer’s study of rage and loss to the intimacy of conversation, as if an old war buddy were telling you a story he can’t quite shake over a couple of beers. Or perhaps as if you were sitting around the campfire with Homer, thousands of evenings ago.

“It brings the story closer to today,” says Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who’s directing Kurt Rhoads (Iago in HVSF’s “Othello” last year) in this the festival’s first one-man show. (The Poet is joined onstage by a Muse, in this case a junkyard musician making harmony out of chaos.)

“It’s a guy there telling you what war is like,” Rhoads says of the adaptation’s colloquialisms and playfulness. “It’s not about hexameters.”

But it’s still a story we think we know yet really don’t. “The Iliad” is not the tale of the Trojan War per se, but of an incident that takes place toward the war’s climax — spun more than 3,000 years ago by a poet, or poets, who places the characters and their participants on a path of rejection, rage, revenge and a kind of redemption.

It’s the 10th year of fighting — begun when the Trojan prince Paris ran off with Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus — and the Greeks are no closer to laying siege to the Trojan citadel, thanks to the mischievous gods and the hubris of the Greek high commander Agamemnon (Menelaus’ bro), who has taken the daughter of a priest of Apollo as a war prize. He’ll give her up all right, as long as he’s compensated with another woman. Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors and no lover of Agamemnon’s leadership style, objects to the unfairness of this and a violent argument ensues. Whereupon Agamemnon seizes Achilles’ beloved Briseis, Achilles withdraws from the fighting and his companion Patroclus dons Achilles’ armor to rouse the Greeks, only to be killed unwittingly by the noble Trojan prince Hector.

Enraged and engulfed by grief, Achilles not only kills Hector, he drags his corpse back to the Greek camp and around Patroclus’ grave for 10 days. It’s only when the Trojan king Priam steals into the camp to beg for his son’s body that Achilles, who is fated to die in Troy, recognizes the parity of their situations — a son without a father; a father without a son. In loss, they achieve a kind of forgiveness, and the story ends with the funeral of Hector.

It’s easy to look at “The Iliad” and see every miserable boss, every unfair situation, every kid who picked up a gun, or planted a bomb, in response to real or perceived injustice.

“Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare I think were very interested in the addiction to rage,” Upchurch says. “What do you do with rage?”

There’s a clue in the scene between Achilles and Priam as Achilles puts the brakes on his anger, perhaps for the first time.

“Achilles governs his passion here,” Rhoads says. “When that rage is on, you need that breath. You need that pause.”

But how do you achieve that breath, that pause, they wonder, in the theater of war, the battlefield, or a place where war is theater, the football field. How do you switch aggression on and off?

“In our own country, we’re not as connected to returning vets,” Rhoads says. ”We’re not connected to war and what transpires unless you have a son or daughter, wife or husband who serves.”

That’s why both actor and director are happy to bring “An Iliad” to first-year cadets at West Point, directly across the Hudson from Boscobel, as part of its tour.

“Every time I sing this song,” the Poet says in “An Iliad,” “I hope it’s the last time.”

Except it isn’t.

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“An Iliad” at Boscobel and on tour

“An Iliad” will be performed at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Route 9 D, Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison 7:30 p.m. Aug. 3, 9, 21 and 24. Tickets range from $32 to $84. For more, call 845-265-9575 or visit

“An Iliad” will also be presented Aug. 8 at the Hudson River Museum Amphitheater, Aug. 16 at Basilica Hudson in Hudson, N.Y., Aug. 22 and 23 on Bannerman Island and Sept. 2 at West Point.

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