Kings: The Siege of Troy, an adaptation by Jim Milton of Christopher Logue’s wonderful poem entitled Kings, is ending its run this week (March 2011) at Manhattan’s Workshop Theatre. Handcart Ensemble, Verse Theater Manhattan, and WorkShop Theatre Company collaborated in this production, not that I know exactly what role each played.

This was a fine, engaging production. The simple lighting, bare stage, and street clothing allowed the language and acting to dominate.

Logue’s work retells in free verse the stories from books I and II of the 24-book Iliad by Homer. Logue has offered “an account” or retelling (not a translation) of other books of the Iliad in War Music, Husbands, All Day Permanent Red, and Cold Calls, all fine poems that can be profitably read alongside a traditional translation, such as the justly acclaimed version by Robert Fagles and the unjustly neglected translation by Stanley Lombardo. Lombardo’s version in fact was made to be performed.

What has offended some reviewers of Christopher Logue’s retellings, that they are not faithful translations, delights the rest of us. He brings his characters and their situations alive in part with startling anachronisms, unexpected humor, and the fluidity afforded by free verse: sudden short lines, imagistic fragments, and cinematic jumps.

One inherent limitation facing Jim Milton in adapting Logue’s work to become this play is the limited scope of its story. While Achilles’ conflict with Agamemnon is the announced subject of the Iliad, a conflict whose resolution determines the outcome of the war and the fate of Troy, the first two books of the Iliad, Logue’s retelling of them, and therefore Kings: The Siege of Troy present only the initial events. Jim Milton has apparently added a few snippets from other Logue retellings.

The primitive conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles, raw male ego rivalry, is not resolved in the play, but is put aside when Zeus sends a dream to trick Agamemnon into a hasty assault on Troy meant to  destroy the Greek effort. The play ends on the eve of that battle, the personal conflict forgotten.

Some audience members might be left puzzled and dissatisfied by Kings: The Siege of Troy. This being America (where pop culture references are inescapable and classical references all but forgotten), some in the audience might not know the Iliad, and thus struggle to understand the play’s storyline and to differentiate among the gods. But they would have neglected to read the notes in the program, hardly the fault of the production company.

Audiences expecting traditional dramatic unity and resolution might be confused by the incompletion of the storyline, and the long digressive account (Homer’s only comic relief) of the insubordination and punishment of Thersites. That comic element is thematically valuable as a foil to Achilles’ own insubordination, although this structural connection might be lost to anyone in the audience encountering the story for the first time.

However formidable these problems might be, the actual production and performances were suasive and pleasing. The pace was brisk, true to Logue’s account, and the stage movement was purposeful and clarifying.

The production employed two fine actors, Dana Watkins and J. Eric Cook. They moved fluidly from character to character, alternating between giving narrative and enacting events, and back again, each playing multiple characters. My intuition before seeing the production was that a stage adaptation would need three actors, but two were adequate. Three still might be better, but Jim Milton knows what he is doing.

Directing his own adaptation, Jim Milton staged a consistent stylized production, the actors now and then pausing convincingly in tableaus familiar to us from urns and friezes, or at least harmonious with our imagined memories of Greek figures in urns and friezes. The lighting designer, Heather Sparling, helped clarify and shape the play’s  rapid changes of place and mood.

An aside: I have come to believe that even very good actors sometimes speak subordinate clauses more rapidly and less expressively than wording in the same sentence that they think more important. Poets as skilled as Logue are not likely to think of any of their words as annoying speedbumps on the road to important language.

But theatre performance and poetry reading are separate experiences, and I defer to theatre professionals on this. The ones who have presented this Kings: The Siege of Troy have done well.

This script is not as far as I know available. Logue’s Kings is available as part of War Music.

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