North Coast Rep’s ‘An Iliad’ a stage partnership eight years in the making
Solo play starring Richard Baird is an anti-war drama told by an ancient heroic storyteller
Eight years ago, David Ellenstein saw a performance of “An Iliad” at the La Jolla Playhouse, and as he walked out of the theater that night he imagined re-staging the one-man drama some day with local actor/director Richard Baird.
That seed of an idea has finally grown to fruition this week, with Ellenstein directing Baird in a new filmed version of the 90-minute play for North Coast Repertory Theatre, where Ellenstein has been artistic director since 2003. “An Iliad” — co-adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare from a portion of Homer’s 15,000-line epic poem “The Iliad” — examines the violence and futility of war through the confrontation between the Greek warrior Achilles and Trojan prince Hector.
In ancient times, Homer’s “Iliad” was told by “singers,” men who traveled from town to town with a musician and delivered the tale in what scholars describe as a rhythmic mix of memorized verse and improvisation. In this play, the singer is a centuries-old poet, desperate to impart both the glories and the devastating costs of war to his ever-dwindling audience before moving on to the next town.
The script for “An Iliad” is notoriously challenging, with one section an ever-growing recitation of every single war in human history. Ellenstein said he never considered anyone for the role but Baird.
“It requires a dynamic actor with great capacity and heart to pull it off. There aren’t too many actors that can do it justice. He has that talent,” Ellenstein said.
Baird, who grew up in San Diego, has performed in 50 Shakespeare productions at repertory companies all over the country. In his early 20s, he started his own Shakespeare company in San Diego, called Poor Players. Six years ago, he and his life and creative partner, Amanda Schaar, reinvigorated Poor Players as the more optimistically named New Fortune Theater Co., which has produced a handful of Shakespeare and other classic plays. Since moving back to San Diego in 2014, Baird has been a regular presence at local theaters, both as an actor and a director. “An Iliad” is his 25th show at North Coast Rep.
Baird had never seen “An Iliad” before Ellenstein hired him to star in the filmed production, which opens for streaming on Wednesday. At first he was skeptical that audiences would be interested in seeing “another war play” during a year where America has been at with with itself, both politically and with COVID-19. But then he read the late scholar Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s tale, on which this play is based, and said it speaks very much to the angst most Americans are now feeling.
“The very first word in the novel and in the play is ‘rage,’” Baird said. “These soldiers are suffering from fatigue and exhaustion. They fear that the other side wants them dead. They’re afraid of catching the plague. And all of this leads to rage. There was something that was very timely, actually, and the fact that the plague was going on during the play may be more relevant than ever for us.”
“An Iliad” was filmed last month on a mostly bare stage at North Coast Rep. Baird’s partner, Schaar, is also featured in the film, playing an original cello underscore she composed for the production. Baird said it was a great comfort having her there with him onstage since without an audience he couldn’t measure the success of his performance.
“I’m breaking the fourth wall through so much of the piece, and it’s very tricky when the fourth wall is three red lights in the dark,” he said. “They won’t respond to me, so I had to trust myself in thinking that what I was doing was either funny or moving.”
Ellenstein said he believes audiences will love Baird’s performance and thinks “An Iliad” will be a show Baird could perform for the rest of his career. Since they first met 15 years ago, Ellenstein said he’s watched Baird transform into a mid-career grounded actor who “works harder than anybody” he knows.
“When I met him, he was in his early 20s and still proving who he was,” Ellenstein said. “He didn’t need to, because he had so much talent and God-given gifts, a great brain and a hunger for the knowledge and history of theater. But since then he’s grown into a mature, settled performer and a real professional actor who accepts direction better and synthesizes with the people he’s working with. He’s a savant, like a young Orson Welles.”
North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “An Iliad”
Streaming: 2 p.m. Wednesday through Jan. 3.
Tickets: $35 for a 48-hour rental
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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