• Otter Views: Great Homer, Good Gatsby

    by Tom Stevens

    Two literary classics – one ancient and daunting; the other modern and accessible – can be explored in alternative formats on the peninsula right now. Curious to see new versions of great works, I took in both shows over the weekend.

    What I learned surprised me. The weighty old epic yielded a lean and riveting one-act play that sprinted for 100 minutes. The slender modern novel, on the other hand, begat a ponderous, candy-colored movie with a cast of thousands but little emotional engagement. It jogs along for 143 minutes.

    If you have 243 minutes to spare, by all means see them both. Years will likely pass before dramatic interpretations of works by Homer and F. Scott Fitzgerald can be seen hereabouts in such close proximity. But if you have only 100 minutes, see the Homer.

    Staged four times weekly through June 2 at Carmel’s compact Circle Theater, “An Iliad” is a rocket ride through Homer’s epic account of the siege of Troy. The play also doubles as a history of war and an astute inquiry into why we continue to wage it. The script, by Lisa Patterson and Dennis O’Hare, was a 2012 Obie Award-winner. The Pacific Repertory Theater’s Carmel production honors the original.

    Its themes alone make “An Iliad” pertinent to our warrior nation, but what really rocks is the presentation. Working on a bare stage with just a few crude props and set elements, one energetic actor brings the whole thing vividly to life. In the current PacRep production, Jackson Davis plays the world-weary “Poet” fated to re-tell through the ages Homer’s war epic.

    “Every time I sing this song, I hope it is the last time,” the Poet tells his listeners, having first invoked the muse. Unshaven, long-haired and wearing a stained overcoat, Davis’ gaunt bard clumps onstage carrying a battered leather valise. He could be a homeless war veteran or a war refugee from any age, including ours.

    But this fellow is special. He has memorized the Iliad, can speak Greek, has traveled the war zones of the world, and is seemingly immortal. In addition, this Poet doesn’t just relate the story; he acts out every role and every highlight. He also projects every emotion, from tenderness, pathos and exhaustion to the fiercest bloodlust and wrath. Davis has his listeners leaning forward in rapt, pin-drop silence.

    Reminding audiences that “Rage” is the first word of the original Iliad’s 15,000 lines of verse, the playbill repeats the play’s nifty prologue: “Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion for the dogs and birds . . . what drove them to fight with such a fury?”

    What, indeed? The Poet quickly dismisses the usual suspects: the beauteous Helen, godly rivalries, the golden apple. No, our age-old desire to slaughter and pillage has deeper, darker, more twisted roots. “An Iliad” explores more of these than can be recapped here, but one sequence is particularly telling. In a near-Homeric feat of memory, The Poet gives a machine-gun recitatif of humanity’s known wars. The times, places, combatants and durations may vary; but war itself is a constant. It’s a dark idea, but so far, true.

    Darkness of another sort shadows Jay Gatsby, protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Roaring ‘20s novel “The Great Gatsby” and of Baz Luhrmann’s new film. Winningly portrayed by Leonardo Di Caprio, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a handsome, high-flying millionaire in the cinematic mold of Charles Foster Kane and Howard Hughes.

    But while those uber-capitalists sought power for its own sake, the self-made Gatsby yearns to impress and win back a lost love who married into old money. To this end, he spins himself a fictitious bio, amasses an illicit fortune, builds a palatial Long Island estate, and pitches glitzy bacchanals where trendy urbanites pose, drink, dance, flirt and strut.

    This is catnip to Luhrmann, who staged sensational party scenes for “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge.” If anything, “Gatsby’s” 3-D effects, computer graphics and vivid palette make its revels seem even zoomier than those predecessors. Somewhere in the second hour, though, the absence of soulful story-telling pops a drag chute on the pizzazz.

    The through story is a love triangle with social caste underpinnings more relevant in the 1920s than today (and more subtly explored in the book). That said, Corey Mulligan makes a winsome if droopy Daisy, Joel Edgerton is convincingly stone-faced as her cheating husband Tom Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire is a comforting narrative presence as Gatsby’s impressionable young neighbor Nick Carraway.

    With its Jay-Z sound track and Bollywood sets, Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is an apt adaptation for our time, but not for all time.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 17, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views


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