October 21-24 MaConnia Chesser, an actor well known to Berkshire audiences, seen this past summer as Goneril in “King Lear” at Shakespeare & Company, will be performing in the solo show “An Iliad” at the Ancram Opera House.
“An Iliad” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare based on Robert Fagle’s translation of Homer’s classic, is a modern-day retelling of the ancient tale of the Trojan War, using poetry and humor to converge the history of then with our lived story now in an explosive theatrical experience.
Gail M. Burns of Berkshire on Stage had a chance to chat with Chesser and Jeffrey Mousseau, who has directed this production and is the co-director, along with Paul Ricciardi, of the Ancram Opera House.
GMB: Jeff, how did you select this play, what vision did you have for it, and how did MaConnia fit into that vision?
Jeff Mousseau: MaConnia was working with Paul on our Crystal Radio Sessions during the pandemic, and “An Iliad” was at the top of our list to express what we’re going through right now with COVID and other conflicts in our society, and so when I thought about what I would want to do when we could go back into our space and perform live again MaConnia and “An Iliad” were an obvious combination.
GMB: I’ve seen a production of this play before, performed by a male actor, and my memory is of the word “rage” which is the first word in the play. I don’t think of “rage” as a female attribute, which is clearly a reflection of my own upbringing as a cis straight woman – so I have a hard time envisioning a woman playing The Poet. How are you approaching the role?
MaConnia Chesser: The playwrights say anyone can play the Poet, that the role can even be shared by more than one actor. I saw one of the playwrights, Denis O’Hare, in the play in New York City, and I’ve seen a woman in the role. Anyone brave enough can do it!
The thing that upsets me most in my daily life is when I see people being mean, and when I see people being hurt and taken advantage of. Then I feel that rage. Rage also comes when we don’t feel we have control. So that is how I connect with that emotion. There are several poets out in the world right now trying to convince people to change how we treat each other.
GMB: The playwrights encourage every artistic team to create their own soundscape for the show. What have you done with that important component of the production?
JM: Alexander Sovronsky, who is well known as a musician, composer, and actor in this region, has created the original music and soundscape for us. The playwrights refer to the auditory elements of the show as The Muses that create the world for The Poet.
MC: The Muses are integral to enabling The Poet to tell the story in different ways from what audiences may have seen before.
GMB: I remember The Poet carrying a suitcase full of props in the production I saw. Will you have a suitcase, MaConnia?
MC: No, not a suitcase. I carry my props in a receptacle unique to my character. People will have to come and see what that is!
GMB: We certainly want to leave plenty of surprises for the audience! What other elements of this production are unique?
MC: I’ve made my artistic home in the Berkshire region, so for people who have enjoyed my work at other venues this is a chance to see me in an intimate space, and that intimacy enables me to approach the storytelling differently.
GMB: This is a big role and any solo play is a challenge, but is there anything that has surprised you as you prepared your performance?
MC: I didn’t think it would be easy but I was surprised how difficult this play is. I have invested so much energy working on the distinctions between the many characters I’m playing…and there are so many lines to learn!
GMB: The AOH presented The Plein Air Plays live outdoors this summer, but this is your first time back inside the Opera House since the lockdown, right?
JM: Despite all the challenges of presenting live theatre right now we’re happy to be back in our space. This is our first indoor production since “The Snow Queen” in December of 2019! The AOH was built as a grange hall back in the 1920’s and so it has always been a place for our community to come together to talk and share. We’re living through a very intense and very divisive time right now and this is a play that looks directly at our propensity for violence, so this is the right place to come together for that discussion. Our space is very important to us. We incorporate the space into the production so this the play is literally set in the Ancram Opera House.
The big question is how ready and willing are people to step back inside a theatre? We’ve done everything necessary to keep our artists and audience members safe. Our seating is socially distanced. We are requiring everyone entering the theatre to present proof of vaccination and their ID, and to stay masked throughout the performance. For complete information on COVID guidelines for attending this performance, click HERE.
“An Iliad” runs October 21, 22 & 29 at 7 pm, October 23 at 2 & 7 pm, October 30 at 2 pm, and October 24 & 31 at 3 pm at the Ancram Opera House, 1330 County Route 7 in Ancram, NY. For more information call (518) 329-0114 or email INFO@ANCRAMOPERAHOUSE.ORG