A Conquest for Stephen Spinella

There is not a single point on the emotional spectrum that is left untouched by Stephen Spinella in New York Theater Workshop’s production of An Iliad.  This tour de force of a role is shared in repertory with fellow New York stage icon Denis O’Hare (who also wrote the adaptation along with Director Lisa Peterson).  The production is a one-man retelling of The Iliad; the classic story is beautifully and astutely folded around contemporary-style banter and anecdotes.  It is underscored by a young man on an upright bass playing an equally diverse range of musical styles and sounds.  With this performance, just when it started to seem impossible, Spinella has outdone himself. 

Photo credit: Charles Erickson

One of Spinella’s greatest gifts as an actor is his striking vulnerability onstage, as evidenced in his performances in Angels in America, Spring Awakening and Paul Newman’s Our Town on Broadway.  Not only does he bring that same vulnerability to this role, but he brings a power, an aggression, that is worlds away from what audiences have come to expect from him.  He spends most of the 100 minutes directly addressing the audience and makes only slight shifts to represent the different characters in the story; the effect of lowering his voice or altering his posture is dramatic even in its most simplistic. 

The part of the production that cannot go unmentioned occurs as he stands on a chair in the middle of the empty stage, in a slowly shifting spotlight, and almost unconsciously launches into a list of all of the world’s most notable wars.  It starts with his trying to recall which battle against the Gods he is referencing in the story, and his own confusion by the various options leads him from one to the next, to the Mexican War of Independence, World War One, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan (again and again), all the way through to Syria.  The political statement being made is awe-inspiring in its subtlety. 

But the real take-away moment of the play may very well come at the end.  He has more or less concluded his story, justifying that the audience knows the rest so there’s no reason to continue.  It ends, he explains, like all war stories end- with loss, sorrow, the destruction of great cities and people.  He has put on his coat and picked up his suitcase and is heading back towards the exit at the rear of the stage, and he pauses.  Lost in the tragic images he has just painted, he slowly sets his suitcase back down.  And this is the Spinella moment that is heartbreaking every time; the exposure of his vulnerability and his pain.  He is shaking softly as he crumbles down onto the suitcase, buries his head in his hands and sobs.  And what he is crying for in that moment means something different to every person in the audience, inviting each to release their own deeply buried emotions and pains even if only for an instant.  He looks up and cathartically takes several deep, forced exhales- the way humans do when they have to collect themselves.  It is humanity in its most exposed and its most alive, and Spinella’s access to it, this gift of his, is breathtaking.

For a little more context on the role:

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