Paris, prince of Troy, is on the ground and Menelaus, king of Sparta, is dragging him through a bar in Montreal's Plateau Mont-Royal. There's only one actor playing this scene, yet somehow Lynn Kozak is making the single combat from The Iliad's third book thrillingly vivid.
Kozak looks like she's performing a written text as any actor would, but her words are her own prose translation from the Greek, made a few days before the show and not written down. The McGill University associate professor plans to do this with a new segment of Homer's epic every week for a 30-week solo production of the whole thing.
"I have one week to translate, memorize and rehearse between 45 minutes and an hour of text," Kozak says after the show. "It feels like the craziest thing ever, but I love it."
Watching her depiction of Paris and Menelaus battling before the massed Greek and Trojan armies, you would never guess that this was the result of a crazy-short production schedule with a non-professional actor. The episode, staged by Cree actor/director Jimmy Blais, is well-paced, powerfully delivered and funny.
Kozak works from the Greek during rehearsal, and says she often has the original in mind while speaking and partly improvising her live version in English. "I discovered that the fastest way for me to memorize was by translating over and over again, but that means there's never a fixed English translation."
Her directors – a different one each week – have only a few days to work out a strategy for doing an hour of epic theatre in a narrow bar with no set and few props.
Kozak worked her way up to this marathon through a series of live productions of Greek texts over the past four years, including her version of two books from The Iliad with actor Paul Van Dyck, and a "collaborative response" to Greek lyric poems with fellow classicist Carina de Klerk. That show, which played at the Montreal Fringe Festival, featured the two women having themed but unscripted conversations over a glass of wine, inserting lines of memorized poems as opportunities arose.
Happy Hour Homer, Kozak's Iliad serial, is part of her ongoing research into how Homer's epics would have been made digestible for their first live audiences. She believes that many of the strategies used were similar to those of TV series that extend their narratives over many weeks.
Deciding the length of a dramatic episode is one of the first tasks of each of her directors, who can't choose where to start but can pick where to end. Kozak clarifies The Iliad's enormous cast of characters by repeating names even more often than Homer does, and has a knack for making the legendary author's descriptive formulas sound current.
"Saying 'Helen with the good hair' has an obvious pop-culture reference, because of Beyoncé," the 36-year-old academic says, "but that's literally what it says in the Greek." There's also something very levelling about Helen sitting on a bar stool while she points out, down on the battlefield, the figure of Odysseus, whose homeland Ithaca "is basically just a rock."
Kozak chose Bar des Pins for her epic serial partly because "I'm always thinking about how to bring down cultural barriers around classical texts." It was also a challenge to find a space available the same night every week for 30 weeks.
Her husband, Joseph Shragge, co-artistic director of Montreal theatre company Scapegoat Carnivale, directed the first episode in mid-January, and other directors are lined up through the end of June. A research grant from the Fonds de recherche du Québec pays for a rehearsal space, directors' fees and a salaried assistant who reads Greek.
When she's finished, Kozak will work on a complete written translation based on her performance texts, all of which are being recorded and uploaded to YouTube. New revelations about a work she already knows well come to her during every performance.
"The minute you're on your feet, and you're in a character or hearing a character for the first time, you see something new, and you feel something new," she says. "We're only a few weeks in and I've learned so much already."
Happy Hour Homer, Lynn Kozak's live serial presentation of The Iliad, continues Mondays at 6 p.m. at Bar des Pins, 3714 Avenue du Parc in Montreal.