By Diana Saenger
The overwhelming success in numerous theaters of Robert Fagles’ translation of “An Iliad,” adapted by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, has brought the play to the La Jolla Playhouse. The reenactment of Homer’s classic poem about the Trojan War is retold through The Poet whose stories are backed by the tones (and often odd sounds) of The Musician.
Lisa Peterson (Playhouse’s “Surf Report” and “Be Aggressive”) also directs the play, a co-production with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The script centers on the gods and goddesses of its time who attempt to circumvent battle with love and a huge Trojan horse.
From Agamemnon to Achilles and the Trojan hero Hector, Henry Woronicz (“The Winter’s Tale,” Broadway’s “Julius Caesar,”) immerses himself in many characters as The Poet, to tell the story of a lifetime with love, anger, surprise and deep passion.
Brian Ellingsen, who plays The Musician, has garnered huge acclaim for his sensitive and on-the-mark talent on the double bass (an upright instrument also called a string bass).
The creative team includes set designer Rachel Hauck, costumer Marina Draghici, lighting designer Scott Zielinski and Mark Bennett providing the original music and sound design. The team received critical acclaim for its work on “An Iliad” at the New York Theatre Workshop earlier this year.
“Sound design” may be a vague term for some theatre patrons, but Bennett confirms it’s a major component of this production. “Music and theater have been married for thousands of years. Over my 25 years in this field, it’s been exciting to see the world of theater and audiences begin to appreciate the contributions of sound designers,” he said.
Bennett has composed scores and sound for the American premieres of plays by Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Tom Stoppard, Athol Fugard, Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill. His Broadway projects include “The Coast of Utopia,” “The Lion In Winter,” “A View From The Bridge,” and Playhouse’s “Most Wanted.”
He has received numerous Obie, Bessie, Ovation, Robbie, and Garland awards along with 10 Drama Desk and two Lucille Lortel award nominations. But his work, he said, even on the same play, starts anew with each new venue.
“There are always a certain amount of changes,” Bennett said. “I feel the coat a performer puts on and wears is his own journey. It affects the way he responds in subtle ways to phrasing and where the music starts. In this piece, it’s a dance between the actor and the musician, and what keeps it interesting for me. The beauty of it is that an entire world is created from one solo bass player and one actor and what each can bounce off the other.”
A sound designer has a number of jobs; most very technical. He is responsible that all of the equipment
is hooked up correctly, tuned and balanced, and that the prerecorded sound effects are layered correctly to accompany the storyteller.
“Sound designers function with a dual mind,” Bennett said. “The technical mind is about the equipment and the cueing of it. The artistic side is how to combine the sounds and install them in the right moment to deliver the content. Composition is pushing the notes on a page and working with the musician to create the melodies and textures of the musical underpinnings. So in this piece, the music and sound wind up very hand and glove.”
Bennett, who worked on the music in the Playhouse’s 2010 “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” said working with the 21 piece chamber orchestra for that show was a pivotal moment in his career. Now he’s equally excited about working with an actor/musician. Brian Ellingsen has garnered much acclaim for his “sensitive” talents on the double bass.