Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

Bobby Bermea: Paul Susi’s odyssey to ‘An Iliad’

The Portland actor and friends are staging a one-night performance of a modern adaptation of Homer's classic Greek tale before taking it back on the road – including to prisons.

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Paul Susi (center) and cellist/composer Anna Fritz performing "An Iliad" on tour at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Northeast Portland. Photo courtesy Columbia River Correctional Institution staff.
Paul Susi (center) and cellist/composer Anna Fritz performing “An Iliad” on tour at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Northeast Portland. Photo courtesy Columbia River Correctional Institution staff.

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“Where do the old gods go when they die?”  – An Iliad

***

Paul Susi is restless.

As a man and an artist in the 21st century he has tried to define his life and his work by one guiding principle. “Since I was in high school,” he says, “I’ve wanted to live a life that engaged with the world and didn’t run away from it.”

You can see this fundamental tenet reflected in a civilian life that has led him to work with homeless people, with youth, assist people in replacing their birth certificates so they can then replace their IDs, and lead a variety of cultural nonprofits — and he’s an actor on the stage. “The restlessness,” Susi says, “is because – like so many of us – trying to be an artist in this city means that you’re just constantly putting the puzzle pieces together and the puzzle is never finished.”

Over Susi’s career he has worked with Anon It Moves, String House, Shaking the Tree Studios, Push Leg, The Forgery, Island Stage Left in Washington state’s San Juans Islands, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Vermont Stage Company, and Teatro Solo/Boom Arts, as well as in self-produced, original work.

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

But his work with Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative led him to the project that has impacted him the most. That script is Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s An Iliad (an adaptation of Homer’s foundational Western text, The Iliad), directed by Patrick Walsh and featuring Anna Fritz, who also composed the music, on cello. 

This week, a one-night-only, invited-audience performance will take placeon Saturday, December 16, at Past Lives Gallery. The purpose of this showing is to raise money and awareness for An Iliad, so that Susi and the his colleagues — Fritz, Walsh, stage manager Lyndsay Hogland, and house manager and talkback facilitator Julia Waters, under the new brand of Red Horse Theatre (named after Susi’s favorite beer in the Phillipines) — can produce the show in nontradtional spaces such as churches, community centers, shelters and prisons.

If you want to attend but can’t, or if you just want to help make sure the tour happens, you can go to this website to donate.

In 2018 Patrick Walsh had been volunteering in prisons in the state of Oregon, including Umatilla’s Two Rivers Correctional Institution, for a program begun by Portland theater artist Johnny Stallings, working with inmates to create their own productions of Shakespeare.

“In 2015,” says Susi, “I drove out to Umatilla, to Two Rivers, to see The Winter’s Tale that Johnny had been directing out there. On their one performance the person playing Paulina had to go to solitary for some reason. Johnny stepped into the role, script in hand. But even so, it was the finest production of The Winter’s Tale I’d ever seen. It was so committed and so simple and direct and accepting of the magic of the play and the themes of loss and estrangement. It really opened my eyes to what performance could be in any setting.”

Walsh started directing out there as well, eventually taking the reins of the program from Stallings and keeping it going. But for this project, Walsh had a different impetus. “By 2017, 2018,” remembers Susi, “Patrick had gone through several cycles of directing plays out there and he wanted to bring something excellent to his guys, as a gift to them, for all the work they had been doing for him and for audiences that were coming out to them. That’s when he approached me to do An Iliad.”  

Anna Fritz, composer and cellist for "An Iliad." Photo: Ian Fritz
Anna Fritz, composer and cellist for “An Iliad.” Photo: Ian Fritz

Susi was familiar with the piece, having seen it at Seattle Rep nearly a decade earlier. “I remember being really riveted by it,” he says. Interestingly, at that time, Susi already had a theatrical relationship with Homer’s epic. “I had a 10-15 minute riff on The Iliad that was based on one of the characters, Ajax. There was a whole thing where I would strip half-naked and rip a bota bag of wine over my head and make a sacrifice of myself.”

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

He laughs: “I was doing the thing that we all do when we’re making experimental theater. And then I saw An Iliad up in Seattle and it stole my thunder, in a really good way. It helped me realize, ‘Oh, it’s not about the stunts. It’s about how do you approach the totality of this epic poem in a way that still connects with our humanity?”

At the time, Susi never expected to do O’Hare and Peterson’s script. “A couple of years go by,” he says. “I’m interested in An Iliad, but no one would ever cast me. I’m not an Equity actor. I’m not part of the circuit of regional theater – intentionally.” That’s when Walsh stepped in with his idea.

Walsh also brought on Anna Fritz, a celebrated composer and celloist, to create the soundscape. “In the script the music is named – the Muses are named – but it’s an unwritten role,” Susi says. “Anna took the prompt of that and created an original score designed to be performed live in the play every time.”

Walsh then proceeded to produce an entire tour, traveling primarily, though not exclusively, to prisons. “In the first two years we did this,” says Susi, “we hit thirteen different prisons.” The reasoning was simple. “In Patrick’s estimation,” he says, “audiences inside of prison deserve the same cultural resource as audiences outside of prison. We’re all human beings. We all deserve access to culture in the same way.”

“Patrick picked this play,” Susi continues, “because it is the epitome of dead white guy culture. We think the administrators didn’t even read the script. But the play is a modern adaptation, it has modern language and it directly references the modern experience of an addiction to violence and trauma and rage that is even more present now than when we first produced this in 2018.

Paul Susi, pulled into the potent realities of a classical tale. Photo: Yaara Perczek
Paul Susi, pulled into the potent realities of a classical tale. Photo: Yaara Perczek

“That’s why those Q&As in prison were as long as the performances themselves. Normally, I hate talkbacks. It’s a lot of ‘How did you learn your lines?’ and ‘Have you been in any movies?’ The Q&As for this show were much more emotionally honest. They’re not bullshitting you with wanting to be seen in the audience or wanting to be recognized for donating money or for buying the expensive tickets. They’re not out there on a date. Not that there’s anything bad with any of those things. It just feels like so often the culture is window dressing for that level of consumerist ego.

“With these audiences in prisons and families and loved ones outside of prisons it’s not that at all. It’s about connecting with each other even across prison walls and across time and space. The guys would see themselves in the play. ‘I know what that was like when you lose control of your rage. I know what that looks like in my father. I know what that looks like in my uncle. And my grandfather. We had a Native American guy that told us that this play was ‘hard medicine.’”

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Chamber Music Northwest Beethoven's Complete Piano Trios The Old Church Portland Oregon

To go along with the tour inside of prisons was the tour outside of prisons. “Patrick sketched out a tour of places to go,” says Susi; “places of worship, community centers, shelters and a couple of theaters alongside the prisons. The same show is being shared inside and outside the prison walls.”

“What started happening was, incarcerated guys would write and call their family and loved ones outside of their prisons and say, ‘Hey, you gotta come see this show.’ We’d be at Oregon State Penitentiary one day and then the next day we would be at St. David of Wales, here in southeast Portland. And the mother of the guy who was at OSP shows up at St. David of Wales and we share this emotional bond, this connection that is absolutely unique to this project and this intention.”

That initial tour took place through 2018-19, and that likely was going to be the end of it. But earlier this year, sixth grade students from West Sylvan Middle School were studying Homer’s The Iliad under the stewardship of Dr. Holly Graham. In looking up information about the poem online, students who had worked with Susi at the Outdoor School at Camp Angelos for Multnomah Education Service District (where he went by the camp name “Badger”) reached out to Susi to do the piece at their school.

“West Sylvan, just like every school in Portland, is going through a lot of trauma,” Susi says. “There’s a lot of race tension in that school; there are Ukrainian immigrants in that school and there are Russian immigrants. So, there’s a lot of conflict every day. Dr. Graham had decided to use The Iliad to address some of the cycles of violence they were seeing in their community.”

When Susi and Fritz performed at West Sylvan, the students made unexpected connections to the piece. “The sixth graders connected more to Andromache and Hecuba,” says Susi. “They saw their mothers in the play. They’d heard these conversations before. They know what it’s like to get the phone call in the middle of the night when your loved one is not coming home – which was really awful and powerful to hear from a sixth grader.”

The performances for West Sylvan led to the decision to remount the tour of prisons. It hasn’t been easy. “The work of remounting this play now feels to me to be much, much more complicated than it was in 2018,” Susi says. “All the prisons are understaffed. They were understaffed even before the pandemic but now they’re much more ready to not even reply to your email.”

But Susi and his colleagues will persevere, because in these days when regional theater is fighting not just for its life but also for its soul, An Iliad’s intention is clear. “The power of this project to me,” says Susi, “is in its subversive intention to abolish prisons, affirming the humanity of all of us, whether we are victims or perpetrators. We, the community, continue to live whether we heal or not. An Iliad, to me, is a path to reconciling the unreconcilable, to bear the unbearable, regardless of whether or not justice has been served.”

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Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

And there is a more personal aspect for Susi himself. “My whole theater life,” he says, “I’ve been trying to belong in a larger community and in a lineage of artists and of work that is meaningful. An Iliad is unique in that I’ve been welcomed and accepted for who I am in ways that I didn’t know I’d been looking for all my life. That’s the hidden jewel of this.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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