Out actor Denis O'Hare is having a Chicago homecoming with the Court Theatre's Midwest premiere of An Iliad, now in previews before an official opening Nov. 19.
Yet, O'Hare won't actually be acting at the Court with An Iliad. Instead, it's his script co-written with respected director Lisa Peterson that will be heard loud and clear.
O'Hare is famous nowadays for his acclaimed cable TV turns as the villainous vampire Russell Edgington in HBO's True Blood and the burn victim Larry on FX's American Horror Story. However, the Michigan native and Northwestern University graduate first made a name for himself as a theater actor in Chicago, and then in New York.
Longtime Chicago theater audiences may remember O'Hare from local productions like Hauptman, What the Butler Saw, Fuente Ovejuna and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (the latter three were at Court Theatre during its 1990-91 season). O'Hare moved to New York in 1992, later appearing in Broadway revivals of Cabaret, Assassins and Sweet Charity. O'Hare also won a Tony Award in 2003 for Richard Greenberg's gay baseball drama Take Me Out.
O'Hare's first playwriting credit came about when Peterson sought him out in 2005 to read and examine Robert Fagles' English translation of Homer's ancient Trojan War epic The Iliad.
"She said she approached me because I was the most anti-war person she knew," O'Hare during a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
"She kind of wanted to hack it out with me, but what we found working on An Iliad is that it defies the imposition of an agenda." O'Hare said. "So as anti-war as I am and as much as I would love to use An Iliad as a platform to talk about that, it doesn't entirely allow you to."
Peterson and O'Hare initially read and discussed their views on The Iliad without a definite course on how they wanted to theatricalize the material. However, after numerous videotaped discussions, readings and workshops (the two particularly luxuriated in a very helpful summer at the Sundance Institute's Theatre Lab in Utah), Peterson and O'Hare crafted An Iliad into a one-man show in 2010.
"Ultimately what we came up with sort of organically was, 'Who is this person talking? Is it Denis? Or another character?'" O'Hare said about the character of The Poet. "It just revealed to us that it was Homer and he's been alive now for like 2,800 years and he's been telling the story to anyone who will listen, and he will continue telling the story as long as he has to."
O'Hare was originally supposed to star in the world premiere of An Iliad at Seattle Rep, but his casting in True Blood scuttled those plans. Instead, Tony Award-winning actor Stephen Spinella (Angels in America, Spring Awakening) appeared in An Iliad in Seattle and a subsequent run at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.
Although there was talk between O'Hare and Peterson about him appearing in the Court production of An Iliad, TV work once again prevented him (this time it was American Horror Story). Yet O'Hare made certain that he will appear in An Iliad in February 2012 at the New York Theatre Workshop, where he will alternate performances with Spinella.
The Court Theatre is presenting An Iliad thanks to artistic director Charles Newell's previous friendship with Peterson (O'Hare said Peterson trusted Newell to honor their work). As The Poet, Newell cast Timothy Edward Kane (The Illusion, Rock 'n' Roll).
"Our hope is by the end of the evening that you not only understand something about the impulse, or as the text says 'this rage contained within all of us,' but also how we have a choice with what we do with those emotions," Newell said, adding that the actor Kane "is just turning himself inside-out emotionally in a very exposed and dangerous performance that I think will have some real impact."
As for O'Hare, he's currently enjoying his increased national exposure as an actor thanks to TV and film work like The Good Wife, Milk and especially in True Blood. In fact, O'Hare was interrupted mid-interview by a True Blood autograph seeker.
"I'm old enough in this business that I sort of gave up on the idea that I would be discovered and turned into a movie starthat idea died when I was about 30 or 35, but I was very happy being a working actor," O'Hare said, adding that he didn't entirely factor in garnering fame via cable TV. "I have no illusions about what it means and how long it will last, but I am enjoying it."
O'Hare himself was surprised at all the media coverage he got his past July when he married his longtime partner, interior designer Hugo Redwood, in New York just a few days after it became legal in that state.
"I decided to go ahead and tweet something about my marriage and I guess there were a lot of journalists sitting around with nothing to do on the West Coast covering some sort of fall TV series launch and they all picked up on it and it went out like wildfire," O'Hare said.
Although O'Hare wouldn't reveal any major True Blood plotlines, he did disclose that Russell Edgington will return even though he was seemingly killed off.
"I'm coming back [for True Blood's fifth series] mid-season because of An Iliad. I'm amazed that we were able to negotiate around that," O'Hare said. "I'm very happy to come back and actually I got the first two scripts for True Blood and I've been hungrily reading them."
Although Newell hopes that audiences will come see O'Hare and Peterson' An Iliad because it's a critically acclaimed theatrical adaptation of a monumental epic of western civilization, he's very open to welcoming in die-hard True Blood fans.
"We work in a very complicated marketplace," Newell said. "If Denis O'Hare's acting in other aspects of the entertainment world draws some attention to people coming out to see An Iliad, then fantastic."
An Iliad continues through Dec. 11 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $30-$40 for previews; $40-$60 for the regular run. Call 773-753-4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org .