I recently read Pat Barker's newest novel, The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of the Iliad from a female perspective. It focuses on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as seen through the eyes of the queen Briseis, who has been awarded to Achilles as his prize and is the cause of the ferocious enmity between Achilles and Agamemnon, who wants her for himself.
This feminist approach is interesting. But it reveals the limitations of trying to read a classic through a contemporary lens: It's boring. Once you take the war out of the war story, you don't have much left. And any reader of Homer with any empathy and inclination to literary interpretation could have imagined for themselves what it would have been like to be one of the silent "girls."
Warplay, Azuka Theatre's production of JC Lee's play, tries for another contemporary interpretation of Homer. Here, the angle is "toxic masculinity," and the approach is psychological, as in "Workin' on my self-awareness, bro." The intense friendship between Achilles (Jeff Gorcyca) and his childhood friend and comrade in arms, Patroclus (James Kern), here becomes a gay love affair, as Lee attempts to resee the heroic through a queer lens. Of course Homer, several millennia ago, looked through that same lens (Homer had many lenses), inviting Lee's interpretation.
Given the controversy about gays in the military, far more might have been made of the these two larger-than-life characters in redefining manhood and physical courage in terms of violence and brutality. In Scene 1, Achilles tries to persuade Patroclus to kill a rabbit with a rock as a test: "We're boys. It's what we do." This basic "training" will continue through the following scenes as the play moves forward and backward in time.
There are other issues addressed, too, too many and too big for this short play to handle: destiny and free will, honor, absent fathers (there's an unfortunate Darth Vader moment), not to mention gaming and comic books, another culture's beliefs about the afterlife, as well as the way a culture defines itself through the stories it tells. But when a cute stuffed rabbit appears through a tiny trap door clutching a message for Achilles, the tonal shifts may have gone too far.
Warplay's ideas are certainly important, as director Kevin Glaccum recognizes, and he does his best to liven up a two-hander burdened with monologues, although the fight choreography (Michael Cosenza) is so close to us in the intimate Louis Bluver Theatre that it is worrisome for the actors as well as the characters. Be careful, boys, you might hurt yourselves.