John Manfredi as the Poet in "An Iliad" at the Performance Network Theatre, running through October 27
Mr. Manfredi is exactly the man to play the role of the haggard, war-weary, long-suffering poet, warning yet another generation, another time, another place, another people, again and again, over and over and over since the beginning and until the end of time, of the pains of war. Craggy-faced and sweet-voiced--really, the kind of voice you want to hear read the news, the morning announcements, the phonebook, anything--Mr. Manfredi commands the stage and the narrative without pandering to the audience or leaving it behind. He is Achilles and he is Hector, he is Kings Priam and Agamemnon, he is Andromache and Helen and Paris and Patroclus. But he is most thrilling when he is the poet--part high school teacher, part social commenter--speaking softly and confidentially, or raging around the stage sticking invisible swords in invisible soldiers, or changing the record player, smiling to himself over the fresh delight he has in store for his audience. What he's doing is good old-fashioned story-telling, and you just can't go wrong entrusting your evening in Mr. Manfredi's very capable hands.
Perhaps it is heresy to say, but I did not find the material itself especially compelling. Ridiculous, I know: this is a retelling of one of the oldest, most persistent stories in the Western world. The tragically heroic Achilles, the deeply good Hector, the beautiful Helen (that whore, says the poet), the broken-hearted Andromache--these are the memes we've been aping for millennia. It is the very stuff of good story, as we understand it. For me, that was the problem. If you're going to re-imagine the Iliad, I want to see more imagining. This sometimes felt like a high production classic lit lesson that skips over some of the juiciest stuff in the source material. The novel contribution was the comparison of the Trojan War to every Western war that has happened since, culminating in an actual listing of all these conflicts. Don't get me wrong: you can't go wrong with the Iliad, and, worst case scenario, this an enjoyable reminder of a tale you once read in school. I just sometimes found myself wondering, Why? What is the purpose of this adaptation?
If the answer is, "To give Mr. Manfredi in Ann Arbor a vessel to disseminate his gifts as an actor," that would be reason enough for me.