Raising the Bard

In 2005, New York actor Denis O’Hare (probably best known for his role as King Russell Edgington on the hit HBO series True Blood) began an unlikely collaboration with fellow thespian Lisa Peterson who, up until that point, had been his director in a handful of successful, low key theatrical productions.

The result was a 90-minute distillation of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, in which the late 20th century translation by Robert Fagles served as the launching point for a contemporary production, combining his formal text with snatches of ancient Greek from the original, then tossed in conversational colloquialisms to bring it into the present and lend it accessibility. Completed and produced for the first time in 2012, the play won an Obie Award.

Fast forward to the present, where two local artists, actor/director Algernon D’Ammassa and musician Randy Granger have formed another unlikely alliance to bring O’Hare and Peterson’s award-winning script to life in a southwest premiere at the Black Box Theatre in Las Cruces. Or, perhaps unlikely isn’t the proper term, considering each is highly regarded and respected for his professionalism when it comes to his craft. And, really, there isn’t a huge difference between acting and performing music, especially in the classical sense.

Actor/director Algernon D'Ammassa embodies the immortal bard in a modernized update of An Iliad.
Actor/director Algernon D’Ammassa embodies the immortal bard in a modernized update of An Iliad.

“There’s actually a score for this piece, from when it premiered in New York,” D’Ammassa says of the not-so-chance encounter between the two artists. “The score is for cello, but I thought it might be interesting to do something really new with different instruments. A good friend of mine said ‘well, you’ve got to talk to Randy Granger, because he plays everything and is very inventive.’ So, I emailed Randy and we met for coffee. After about an hour, it was very clear we felt comfortable collaborating on this.”

The resulting exercise has taken O’Hare and Peterson’s revisionist stageplay and turned it into an improvisational duet which is never the same twice. Both D’Ammassa and Granger make it clear that this project is far more than a simple retelling of an ancient epic. For both, it’s more a launching pad for experimentation and self-discovery. So excited are they by this piece, they tend to feed off each other’s energy when talking about it.

“The play revolves around two people, one a musician, the other a poet,” D’Ammassa explains. “The text conveys a clear idea that these guys were around for the Trojan War. They witnessed it. So, they’re trying to sing the Iliad, but they’re old and the memory is not so good. They end up talking directly to the audience and paraphrasing and explaining it to them, relating the events to modern things, so that people can really identify with the characters.”

“We’re trying to goad each other into remembering how Troy was, how the times were,” Granger adds. “We’re trying to communicate to the audience, as much as possible, what it was really like, so when he can’t quite remember something, I play a little piece of music to jog his memory a bit. We’re both storytellers, but in different ways.”

“It has been a sensation, because it takes this ancient work, but it retells it in a really vital way,” D’Ammassa says. “It not only opens up the Iliad for a modern audience, it’s also an incredibly powerful statement about live theatre and what you can do with an actor and a musician in a room. It’s a very powerful testimony to this very ancient tradition of live theatre. The really cool part is, there are no stage directions in the script, so it’s very open to interpretation.”

Multi-instrumentalist Randy Granger plays musical counterpoint to D'Ammassa's poet.
Multi-instrumentalist Randy Granger plays musical counterpoint to D’Ammassa’s poet.

For his part, Granger was drawn to this aspect of the work. No stranger to improvising music to accompany the spoken word, he has had successful collaborations in the past with the late poet Wayne Crawford and, more recently, with naturalist and author Craig Childs.

“The way I look at my role in this collaboration is to be a supportive role in the story that Algernon is telling,” Granger says. “I will be playing some old flutes; some Native American flutes and some East Indian flutes, plus some weird percussion type of instruments, so I’m really painting a soundscape as we go along, for each story he tells. We wanted to keep the energy fresh and improvisational. At least for me, that makes it exciting, because the audience is going to witness some actual music that is being created right there in the moment.”

“Randy is literally improvising the music, because the Iliad is a song and whereas bards used to accompany themselves on a lyre, here we have two bards. One is expressing the story through music and the other is expressing it through words,” D’Ammassa adds. “I really like that the music has an existence and a life of its own, that it has its own expression. There is so much in this piece about poetry and music, different ways that the breath expresses itself.”

Granger nods in agreement. “There are a lot of places in the script where he talks about breath, which makes me think of the breathiness of a bamboo flute,” he says, then stops to think about it. “This is actually more freeing for me than what I do as a musician, because, when I’m on tour and performing, I need to do stuff from my cds in order to move merchandise, but with this, I’m using my repertoire of skills and life experiences. I’m drawing upon a full life as a musician. That’s challenging.”

The tale of warriors Achilles and Patrocles, brought to life in Homer's Iliad, becomes a focal point in the revisionist stageplay.
The tale of warriors Achilles and Patrocles, brought to life in Homer’s Iliad, becomes a focal point in the revisionist stageplay.

As for the text of play, D’Ammassa has saddled himself with a tremendous responsibility. That of relaying a monologue made up of three different modes of language and a multitude of different character types. Though he admits that it is a challenge, he’s more concerned with presenting a theatrical piece that has resonance.

“One of the things that I’ve been trying to do theatrically in the community is to introduce harder works, where there actually is a risk of failure, but you work hard and you prepare and minimize the risk of failure. Try to give people the opportunity to see work that is exhilarating and kind of illuminates this moment in time that we’re alive,” he says.

Once again, Granger is in complete agreement.

“Live theater that happens at this level is very exciting, because it forces the audience, in some ways, to be engaged,” he says. “It’s a very engaging script. Algernon tells so many stories and has so many different voices and has so many different ways of delivering it. It’s like he’s a trained musician pulling out a lot of different tools to express himself. I can relate to that. There are very few props, so the interaction and the story and the script and the energy is really what it’s about.”

“What you’ll be watching is two people being changed by the act of performing,” D’Ammassa says. “It’s an incredibly exhausting and risky performance for the actor, as well as for the musician. To really see that and be in the room where that’s happening, is vital. I’m really happy to get a chance to do that and to let music be an integral part of the event. The story and the music each have an independent existence, but they also interact. I’ll be interacting with Randy. We’re very much performing the same thing, but we’re also having our individual expressions.”

An Iliad, written by New York thespians Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, won an Obie Award in 2012.
An Iliad, written by New York thespians Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, won an Obie Award in 2012.

“I think if you’re an artist you’re always wanting to push your own boundaries, do something that you’ve never done and work with somebody that’s going to make you a little uncomfortable, a little insecure, a little self-conscious,” Granger says. “I think that’s when you grow as an artist and that’s what we’re doing here.”

An Iliad makes its southwest premiere at the Black Box Theatre, 430 N. Main St., at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21 and 22; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23. Tickets are $12 general admission, $10 students and seniors. For more information, or to make reservations, call 523-1223.

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