The Little Iliad is a lost epic about the Trojan War in which the Greeks finally defeat their Trojan enemies and destroy the city. It survives only in a few fragments, or as Evan (Evan Webber) says, “A b-side.” One episode of the Little Iliad has been the subject of plays by several ancient Greek playwrights, but only the one by playwright/general Sophocles survives. In Sophocles’ version, Odysseus and Neoptolemus retrieve a much-needed weapon of war, Philoctetes’ magic bow. Today, Sophocles’ play is performed by nothing less than the US military as a way to help soldiers returning from war address PTSD (among other things, one presumes).
Evan Webber’s production, The Little Iliad, transforms the original play into a skype conversation, held by two childhood friends, Evan playing himself and Tom (Frank Cox-O’Connell). Tom, about to deploy for Afghanistan, has sent Evan a copy of the play after seeing it in a military magazine and Evan wants the two of them to retell the story as his new playwriting project. In a clever bit of meta-theatre, the audience is treated to Evan and Tom’s skype discussion using projected images on two clay dolls. It’s done in real time and with an experienced sense of the video-telephone technology. All that was missing was the usual Skype message dropouts.
Tom and Evan alternate roles for the characters, telling the story in their own boyish, awkward way. As they converse, the characters of Sophocles’ play AND the characters of Evan and Tom are shaped. Evan has a Dave Foley-esque manner about him, needling, nervous and slightly irritating, pressing his friend to do and say more. Evan seems to seek something from Sophocles’ play, but doesn’t grasp it as his friend Tom does. Even as a projection, Tom is a full character, with a kind of goofy but driven personality, a man who believes in the duty and mission of being a soldier, yet part of him holds back from committing fully. His act of reaching out to Evan reveals his weaknesses and he badly wants Evan to provide him with an answer to an unknown question. In fact, Tom’s behavior seems to foreshadow that Tom will come back deeply traumatized by the war or in a body bag, though we never find out.
On top of that, the telling of the Philoctetes is wonderful. For reasons I don’t know, Odysseus is here called Ulysses, and Neoptolemus Pyrrhus. However, every playwright in the ancient world told myths in a way that suited their own needs, so why not Evan Webber? In just a few short dialogues, Evan brings the abandoned hero Philoctetes to life, as well as a speech by Ulysses on the reason men go to war. Some of the key questions of the play, morality and the good of the many vs. the good of the one, are raised, albeit quickly.
Not surprisingly, the production has received raves from Toronto to Dublin. It’s a tight (30 minutes packs it in), moving production with a big heart and an incisive eye. Evan doesn’t let Tom or Sophocles off the hook. He questions motives, lines of thought, and worldviews. Perhaps at its core, it studies a gap between those that are soldiers and those that aren’t; Evan can not stop Tom from being a soldier any more than Evan can only play one in the theatre.
The Little Iliad is an excellent piece of theatre. Don’t miss it.
The Little Iliad is at L’Espace Libre from March 5 to 14. Show in English with French subtitles. Tickets and showtimes are HERE.