Theater review: An Iliad at 35below
Intriguing slow revelations are at the heart of Rarely Theatre’s production of An Iliad at 35below, beginning with the introduction of the play’s lone speaking figure.
Absent any fanfare, Scott Keel enters stage right, his bushy beard protruding from a hood. With merely the gradual removal of his outer layers, he proceeds to change from Appalachian winter wanderer to a long-haired, shells-in-braids figure from a long ago era, granting an instant gravitas to the proceedings that’s laudably sustained for nearly two hours.
Written by Obie-winning director Lisa Peterson (Light Shining) and Tony-winning actor David O’Hare (Take Me Out), there’s a similar measured unveiling of the material’s purpose, which in fascinating style evolves from seemingly simple entertainment to a meditation on the legacy of war and violence — and perhaps The Iliad’s role in perpetuating toxic battlefield legends.
Keel accepts the challenges of this demanding actor’s showcase and gives a mesmerizing performance. Though a touch quiet at first, bordering on incomprehensible, his bard’s delivery grows in confidence as his centuries-old storytelling muscles loosen and he shares the events of the Trojan War.
As he hits his well-plotted groove under Trinity Smith Keel’s laser-focused direction, Scott Keel becomes frequently intense, occasionally to the point where the character — and possibly the actor — has to reel himself in. Chances are also good that he will lock eyes with you for a somewhat uncomfortable but nonetheless tasteful duration, adding to the realism of this charged melding of character and performer.
While clearly weary from an eternity of sharing the same story, the teller lovingly relates the inner and outer workings of Achilles, Hector & Co. with help from folksy, modern asides, but in time finds himself given over to the narrative and its players, channeling their travails with a dramatic fury that shows his passion for the tale.
The undertaking is remarkably different from Keel’s strong but more restrained recent performances in Frost/Nixon at NC Stage Co. and The Groundling at Asheville Community Theatre, a body of work that establishes him as one of the area’s more versatile actors.
Joining the bard fairly early in the production is soulful musical accompaniment by Franklin Keel on electric cello, a collaborator whose presence the orator acknowledges with a caring gesture that conveys years of shared experiences. Tucked behind a craggy black barrier — the lone stage adornment beyond a table, chair, rucksack, drinking glass and bottle of “tequila” through which the speaker works his way over the course of the show — the instrumentation helps lessen the dramatic blow of what could have been an uncomfortable, exclusively vocal show and turns a pure one-man display into a well-rounded experience.
Working in concert with the duo is nuanced lighting by Abby Auman, whose cues augment the emotions at just the right times, rarely distracting one’s focus from the engrossing human visuals. Together, the modest-sized cast and crew create a memorable work of theater and achieve something close to greatness.
An Iliad runs April 5-21, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at 35below at Asheville Community Theatre. For details and tickets, visit ashevilletheatre.org.
(Photography by Sebastian Michaels)