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Beloved state actor DeVita wows in Rep's 'An Iliad'

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

March 6, 2014

 
WAUKESHA - If any actor can pull off a successful one-man show, it is James DeVita. I can only recall one other performer whom I’ve seen that belongs in his league: Michael Gotch, whom, unfortunately, we haven’t seen of late.  

“An Iliad,” presently playing at The Milwaukee Rep, is an adaptation of the age-old Greek epic of the Trojan War by the poet Homer. It features two legendary warriors - Achilles and Hector - both immortalized by means of this story. It also alludes to Helen, the supposed reason the war was waged.  

Homer is the storyteller, and he admits as he enters the stage that he is tired of telling the same story for the last 3,000 years, and he wonders if anyone is listening, if anyone is catching on to the horror and futility of war as he so graphically describes it. At one point in his narrative, he rattles off the names of more than 100 wars that mankind has engaged in since recorded time (an amazing feat of memorization, by the way). It is a diatribe against greed, violence, cruelty and the loss of lives, property, treasures, even whole cultures. It makes one embarrassed to be a human being, the so-called “rational” animal. Will we ever find more effective, less destructive ways to deal with conflict?  If history is at all an accurate predictor of the future, I seriously doubt if progress is in sight, though I hate to admit it.  

The stage resembles a bombed-out site. It is cluttered with piles of debris.  When DeVita makes his entrance through a door upstage, it slams behind him. At times, he tries to exit the stage, but the door won’t open till he tells his story one more time. His knowledge and his art have trapped him - ah, the responsibility of the artist.  

A cellist, Alicia Storin, is located in a lofty position behind a scrim upstage. She represents one of The Muses, who helps Homer tell his story. Of course, there are many allusions to Greek gods and goddesses throughout the narrative since the gods were inextricably interwoven into the lives of the Greeks. They also are often depicted as fickle, unpredictable and arbitrary, hard to deal with - a lot like humans actually.  

DeVita is intense, nuanced and very strong and agile in his movements. Though he is a relatively small man, he always comes across as powerful, vulnerable, yet bigger than life, not an easy mix to communicate. He also has an ingenious ability to connect with his audience, no matter what role he plays. Even when he’s the bad guy, we are fascinated by him.  

Get ready to be blown away, but don’t expect to feel good when it’s over. The only reward is seeing a stunning performance, a searing set design by Andrew W. Boyce, potent lighting by Noele Stollmack and very able direction by John Langs. “An Iliad” was adapted from the original by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. They used the translation by Robert Fagles as their source.  

“An Iliad” runs through March 23 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Call 414-224-9490 for times and tickets or visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com