If you’ve been keeping up with the NOC’s Fringe coverage, you might be aware that Table Théâtre’s The Iliad for Dummies is on my list of things worth checking out at this year’s festival. While I still stand by that sentiment, after having seen the show it is worth mentioning that this production is certainly more of an acquired taste and will not satisfy everyone’s palate. I have mad respect for performers/creators Laurianne Lehouillier and Valérie Soares who take a giant risk trying to portray a literal epic through the genre of object theatre, but dramaturgically speaking this piece leaves much to be desired.
The Iliad for Dummies is an attempt at deconstructing one of the oldest literary texts in Western history by way of using everyday objects to portray Homer’s famed dramatis personae: Helen of Troy, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector to name just a few. The piece actually starts out very strong and gives a hilarious rundown of the mythological context leading up to The Iliad which features a comical characterization of the womanizing God of Gods, Zeus, as a bald eagle plushie. However, once we move into the actual narrative of the Iliad itself the show starts to lose its momentum.
The thing about this Classical text is that it’s actually a fantastic story with an exciting narrative, complex characters and flawed heroes, and the Greek Gods just generally being their chaotic lawful selves. By trying to simplify the Iliad you risk losing the nuance and poetics of Homer’s words which is undoubtedly the biggest challenge when it comes to trying to condense this 15,693 line poem into 1 hour of show time. I think where The Iliad for Dummies might be better served is in their choice of objects which could be more clear in the personality traits the objects are trying to symbolize.
It seems unclear as to why a coffee mug is used to represent King Agamemnon, an infamous character in his own right, as there didn’t seem to be any thematic link between this character and coffee and/or energy. Helen is represented by a delicate silver creamer, which I sort of get the motivation behind; however, in Homer’s version Helen actually goes on to resent being taken by Paris because of his cowardice in war and actively wishes to be reunited with her strong Spartan husband Menelaus. Keeping this in mind, there might be a better chance for the viewer to have a deeper engagement with the objects/characters if the items themselves can somehow signal these complexities (i.e. that Helen is more than just a pretty face) rather than just surface stereotypes.
The piece also seems to skip over some incredibly important characters as well, namely Andromache (wife to Prince Hector) and Ajax, arguably Greece’s greatest warrior after Achilles; not to mention the introduction of the great tactician Odysseus scores barely more than a mention (though, it’s worth noting that the choice of object in this case- an owl- is on point given how much Athena- who’s divine symbol is also an owl- favoured Odysseus particularly in the Iliad). Other than the beginning moments, the Olympian deities also don’t feature very much in this story which is ultimately disappointing given how many instances of divine intervention there are throughout the original poem. Without a strong presence of the Divine, this text feels more like a synopsis of 2004’s Troy than it does Homer. With all that being said, it becomes difficult to understand what makes The Iliad for Dummies relevant to 2017.
To the credit of this production though, Lehouillier and Soares are energetic performers who have great chemistry on stage allowing them to bounce off one another very naturally. There are some incredibly funny moments where, if you are familiar with the original text, you can’t help but laugh out loud because of Lehouillier’s uber-casual description of events like The Oath of Tyndareus and the battle between Paris and Menelaus. Another great moment happens when Lehouillier highlights the pervasive nature of Hollywood cinema by becoming very agitated at the Soares’ suggestion that they include the Trojan horse “because it’s in the film”. The famous Trojan horse, the veritable symbol of the Trojan War, does not actually feature in the Iliad at all- look it up.
I would honestly love to see this show in another year or two because I think with some solid dramaturgical development (and perhaps bringing on another director/dramaturg to act as an ‘outside eye’) this could be a really great piece of theatre. Unfortunately, much like Achilles’ relationship with his “cousin” Patroclus, most of the show remains woefully ambiguous.
Created by Laurianne Lehouillier, Julie Malenfant, and Valérie Soares
Performed by Laurianne Lehouillier and Valérie Soares
Venue 5 La Nouvelle Scéne- Studio B