SING, GODDESS, THE STORY of Broadway actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson, who toiled to write a solo show based on Homer’s Iliad. It was a labor of love, taking three years to complete, as they researched every warrior and dissected hexameter verse. In the end their efforts birthed the Poet: a “wise, old, crusty, down-on-his-luck storyteller” who alone would make Achilles and Hector, even Helen of Troy, come to life. The Poet shared O’Hare’s verbal tics—every stutter, every repetition, every “um” and “ah.” Yes, O’Hare was the Poet. But then O’Hare was crowned Vampire King of HBO’s True Blood, and the Poet was forgotten—for now: There’s always the lure of future productions off-Broadway. That, they say, is show business.
Two months before the world premiere of An Iliad at Seattle Rep, local actor Hans Altwies stepped in. No slouch on stage, Altwies is a Seattle Shakespeare regular, and even codirects his own theater company, New Century. Still, he had some doubts. “When I heard about it, I thought, No, I can’t do this. This isn’t me,” -Altwies said. “I don’t think of myself as the grand old storyteller. I’m a 40-year-old mostly physical actor.… [But] this is such a big thing for me, to do a one-person show. And even if I’m a terrible actor, I know one thing: I have a fantastic story to tell. And every night I’m going to feel extremely good about sharing this well-known tale in a very, very new light.”
Altwies will stand alone on an empty stage as the “ghostly embodiment of Homer,” Peterson said. Over the course of an hour and a half, he’ll embody 10 different Iliad characters—Agamemnon and Patroclus, Helen and a “little taste of Paris”—with the climax coming as the battle between Achilles and Hector. The script has been adapted from Robert Fagles’s eloquent modern translation, though only a quarter of the play uses the classical text; the rest is colloquial speech, and in some ways, political barbs. The Poet delivers an antiwar message—after recounting the Trojan War for millennia, he’s getting kind of sick of it. “He’s starting to hate to have to tell the story,” Altwies said. “He’s infuriated with the ridiculousness of war. He’s infuriated with the hubris, egotism, and the general arrogance of these warriors, and the senselessness of their slaughter.”
But in a way, he admires their bravery, their code of honor, and will continue to tell their story until war becomes obsolete. Altwies has signed on to do the same—until Denis O’Hare returns from his stint as a vampire.