Henry Woronicz and Fontaine Syer are no strangers. The actor/director team, also a couple, is collaborating on Indiana Repertory Theatre's An Iliad, a one-man show based on Homer's epic. It's not an easy assignment, especially for Woronicz.
"It's 100 minutes on stage telling a story about rage and war," says Woronicz. "It's got some big emotional arcs to it. So it's a very challenging piece to do mentally, emotionally and physically."
But with a shared sense of how theater works, Woronicz and Syer feel themselves well-matched to take on Homer's story about the siege of Troy, as translated by Robert Fagles, then recently adapted for the stage by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare.
"Our aesthetic is based in the language," says Syer. "If you can make a word carry the impact of what you're trying to accomplish, it brings the language to life in a remarkable way. The Iliad is foundational to everything that has come after it, to huge portions of our literature. We still operate with these mythologies in our heads."
Woronicz and Syer, now an associate professor in IU's theater department, met when Woronicz was an artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and looking for directors. Syer came highly recommended.
That was 21 years ago. Since then, they've taken turns directing each other in a number of different projects, including Macbeth, Our Town and others. But An Iliad marks the first time they've paired together professionally in over ten years.
"About a year and a half ago, I was finishing up a teaching stint at Illinois State University," says Woronicz. "I was ready to stop teaching and get back into the profession."
That's when he got a casting agent's call for a one-man show on the west coast. Worocinz performed An Iliad at both the La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theater last fall, in a separate incarnation with a different director and designers.
"The west coast run was a long, exhausting process," explains Woronicz. "When Janet [Allen, IRT's artistic director,] approached me about doing it here, part of my brain was like do I want to get back into that again? Doing it with Fontaine is a special gift and a special attraction to make that happen. There is a part of me that wants to see if we can put my performance together in such a way that doesn't take such a physical toll."
"Henry says he feels like he is erasing tapes," explains Syer. "There are certain words or phrases that are seamlessly melded to physical activity. And we're in the process of changing those. Not because I want to throw out Henry's performance but because it's a different arrangement."
Syer and Woronicz's shared sense of the world around them serves to deepen the connections they make in the rehearsal process. With half-sentences and an almost psychic connection, the rehearsal process moves along in a very special, uncanny way.
"I'll say two words [of direction] and he'll say "got it." And [our stage manger] looks at me like what? Did you finish your thought? Yeah, we got it. We're there," explains Syer.
"It's because she knows where my brain is coming from, and I know where her brain is coming from," says Woronicz.