In "An Iliad," the tale of war that actress Tarah Flanagan recounts, is an age-old song of conflict, rage and destruction. But this single actress on a nearly bare stage makes the story feel contemporary as she addresses the audience directly as the Poet.

On Sunday at Cleveland Play House, I finally got to catch up with this powerful play, based on Homer's epic poem and adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare from the translation by Robert Fagles. Those who enjoy storytelling at its finest still have a chance to catch this searing tale of empires clashing, with final performances running through this Sunday. (See www.clevelandplayhouse.com or call 216-241-6000.)

Flanagan plays a reluctant Poet who wishes she didn't have to keep telling this tale of war, bloodlust and death. But she must.

"What drove them to fight with such a fury?'' she asks of the Greeks and Trojans in this decadelong war, precipitated by the pretty boy Paris of Troy kidnapping the beautiful Helen from her Greek husband, Menelaus, and taking her to Troy.

Walking up and down the aisles of the Outcalt Theater at Playhouse Square, the Poet asks us to imagine hundreds of thousands of Greek boys called up to launch 1,000 ships in the quest to get Helen back from Troy. She humanizes them by talking about them being only 18, 19 or 21 years old and for us to imagine them coming from such familiar cities as Buffalo, Akron, Chicago and Memphis.

"It's a good story and I remember a lot of it," the Poet tells the audience.

The slight Flanagan, who creates a great physicality as the Poet, is performing what largely amounts to a one-woman show with the help of just a few props, including a ladder to represent a Trojan tower. She delineates the city of Troy on stage simply and effectively by slowing emptying red sand onto the stage floor.

The Muse soon joins her, the wordless Eva Rose Scholz-Carlson. She wrote the music that accompanies the story, accentuating the danger and grief of the tale on cello, whose body she also slaps to create percussive war sounds.

Flanagan, who co-directs the show with Andrew Carlson, creates awful word pictures of the great Greek warrior Achilles' fury toward both his king, Agamemnon, and his greatest enemy, Hector of Troy. We're horrified as she pours out a white line of sand along the Trojan wall while describing how Achilles dragged Hector's dead body along the whole wall by chariot.

When the Poet talks about Achilles' rage, she makes an analogy to the bloodlust that people feel today during acts of road rage. She tells of how Achilles' grief immediately turns to rage after Hector kills the man who was like his brother, Patroclus.

In this tale, we do feel some hope when the Greeks and Trojans agree to an 11-day cease-fire so the Trojans may bury Hector. But the peace is obviously short-lived, and the Poet alludes to the many terrible events that conclude the Trojan War.

In this play, in one long, weighty moment, the Poet seems to recite every war in history, right up to modern times. That creates another link to the present day, illustrating that human beings' warmongering hasn't changed.

 

Musical celebration

Broadway star Lisa Howard created a sleek, entertaining and emotional concert Saturday night at her alma mater, Firestone High School, with the help of 20 student performers, adult singers Brian Keith Johnson and Scott Shriner as well as her brother, Brian Howard. The program, which about 300 attended, included an "I Want Medley," which Howard has previously sung at Feinstein's 54 Below. Its tunes illuminated the burning desires of a dizzying array of female Broadway characters from shows ranging from classics such as "Gypsy," "My Fair Lady" and "Hello, Dolly" to the more contemporary "Little Mermaid" and "Wicked."

The versatile singer, a 1993 Firestone graduate, led the cast in everything from a dramatic "One Day More" from "Les Miserables," to a full scene and "The I Love You Song" from "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,'' in which she made her Broadway debut.

She entertained with the jazzy, sassy "Jenny's Blues" from her role in "It Shoulda Been You" and sang most tenderly in the ballad "Stay Five,'' which she dedicated to her 5-year-old son, Alex.

Howard kept up lively patter throughout the show, sharing that the song "Maybe" from "Annie" was one of her first solos in grade school, and recounting a magical, defining moment when Broadway legend Betty Buckley shook her hand after she sang "Trina's Song/I Have Found" by William Finn in a program with a bunch of Broadway stars at the Lincoln Center.

Near the end of the concert, Howard awarded $500 scholarships to arts students Leah Stanford of Woodridge High School and Serrin Scrutchings of Firestone for their passion, drive and talent.

"I hope you can take this and run with it,'' Howard said of the boost to their arts education.

Howard invited fellow Firestone alumni, including local performer Kat Glover, to sing in the finale. In a surprise moment, Ryan Harden came onstage to propose to Glover, which drew applause from the audience. (She said yes.)

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.