Imagine your favorite, most passionate English teacher from high school. The one who loved the books he was teaching so much that he would jump on his desk with excitement and bellow his favorite lines, bringing the scene to life in the drab, gray classroom before the principal stuck her head in to shush the class. Think Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.
Seeing Gorilla Theatre's An Iliad is like hurling yourself back into your ninth grade classroom with Williams' John Keating for a review session of Homer's epic poem. In a shabby theater with a small platform stage, one man brings the tale to life and makes it resonate with a modern audience.
The poem's adaptation was originally developed as part of the New York Theatre Workshop Usual Suspects Program in 2012 by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, and it is an appropriate choice for Gorilla Theatre's resurgence onto the Tampa Bay theater scene. Springs Theatre in Seminole Heights functions as a temporary home for the production, and let's call it the ashes to Brendan Ragan's phoenix of a performance. The theater's rusty marquis stands out on the corner across from a dilapidated thrift shop, and the cavernous black box-style space is set up with cafe table seating that looks as if the thrift shop donated it to them.
As soon as the lights dim and the Poet winds his way through the audience and onto the stage, the daunting realization hits that the next 90 minutes (with no intermission) are in this man's hands.
His first words are in Greek, but he could have begun by singing, "Come with me and we'll be in a world of pure imagination," and it would have been equally as appropriate. The stage is spartan, with only a shabby dining set perched on the small platform against a white scrim, and just as you would expect from Mr. Keating or Willy Wonka, the Poet is expecting you to flex your own creative muscles and create a scene far more vivid than a small production budget would allow.
This tactic works and works well for a majority of the show. With the Poet as your guide, it is easy to conjure the image of a beach lined with jagged rocks, the tens of thousands of soldiers manning thousands of boats storming the shoreline, the bloody devastation of the front lines of battle. Only about three quarters of the way through does the twinge hit that the ticket overhead could have covered a few more lighting or sound cues.
The most surreptitiously poignant moments in An Iliad are when the Poet draws parallels between mythological war and our modern day wars. He starts by playing off national pride, eliciting claps and woos from the audience when he calls out "the boys from Florida" among a litany of American cities, but he hammers home how war has plagued the world in an impressive recitation of every war throughout history.
Curtain call is comparable to seeing a close friend cross the finish line of a marathon. The moment is short, but it captures an undertaking that is wildly deserving of the standing ovation. Ragan carries off an amazing feat in this production, and he does it with grace, tenacity and no more than a chair from Goodwill to fall back on.