The friendship between Achilles and Patroclus compels and intrigues. Though in the Iliad Homer is never explicit, it’s regarded as one of the most famous homosexual relationships in world literature. Others see a deep male friendship or the bond of brothers in arms. In J.C. Lee’s overly earnest WARPLAY, now in production by Azuka Theatre, the pair share a brojob-tinged bromance.
As “A” and “P” Jeff Garcyca and James Kern look the part of masculine heroes, and Kevin Glaccum brings out their physicality and tenderness in his direction. A trains P for “games” by getting him to kill a too-cute rabbit. They’re traveling somewhere, though they keep returning to the fenced-in play area (set design Thom Weaver). Much of the dialog and plot is set out in vagaries (“I’ve spent my whole life getting ready for this. We have to go”), but anyone with a knowledge of Homer knows it won’t end well.
I found a copy of the Iliad in a pile of free books recently and revisited the section where Achilles finds out that Patroclus has been killed by the Trojans. The demigod comes out of a moping disengagement caused when King Agamemnon stole his companion Briseis. He rages with mourning and revenge—shrieking, crying, covering himself with dust, driving his chariots to the point of exhaustion. It’s a powerful scene, foreign yet familiar to anyone who has felt anger or loss and one reason Homer’s epic remains read and relevant millenia after its composition.
Successful modern takes on Homer range from the high modernist Ulysses to the country twee Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Pat Barker’s intriguing The Silence of the Girls, published earlier this year, brings a feminist critique to Homer by giving voice to Briseis, a queen passed from Achilles to Agamemnon after the Greeks killed her family.
I’d hoped Lee would reframe Homer with similar success. His Pookie Goes Grenading (also staged by Azuka) was one of my favorite plays of recent years and demonstrated a contemporary ear and iconoclastic humor ideal to reimagine a classic story. Instead, in trying to handle such diffuse themes as toxic masculinity, military indoctrination, and grief, WARPLAY comes off as self-serious (“We’re halfway there… we have to keep going.”) and shallow (“Tell me how to be good.” “You can’t tell someone how to be good.”).I found myself struggling to remember Homer to add some depth to what I was seeing onstage.
On hearing of P’s death, A kills a rabbit. It’s not quite “Sing, oh muse, of the rage of Achilles.”
[Azuka Theatre at the Drake] October 31-November 18, 2018; azukatheatre.org