The Greek playwright Sophocles wrote his most famous tragedy, Oedipus Rex, first performed in Athens in 429 BC, as part of a Thebes-set trilogy rampant with death and destruction. Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone have never received the attention nor varied, frequent production that the singularly impacting Oedipus Rex has.
As perfect a tragedy as man could write according to Aristotle in his Poetics, Oedipus Rex reveals what happens when a mere mortal tries to avoid his grisly predestined fate as foretold by the gods’ oracles. Free will v. fate; blind sight v. wise inner vision; a tragic plummet from high state due to an excess of hubris, stubborn pride, and rash decisions – all figure into the play. It can present one of the most moving and horrific depictions of a great man’s fallibility when produced effectively.
Texas Women’s University theatre professor Steven Young adapted and directed the play as Oedipus the King for Broken Gears Project Theatre, running now at the company’s Oak Lawn area venue through May 8, 2011. Earnest and faithful to the plot, Young’s adaptation lacks emotional intensity and range. Oedipus’ cataclysmic decline feels more like a gentle slide than genuine off the cliff tragedy. David Jeremiah is well cast as Oedipus, more than capable of brilliantly conveying the regal qualities and judicious aspect of the king, as well as his tragic flaws. As written and directed, Jeremiah’s performance feels as though it was modeled on President Barack Obama when he’s in his dry, rational constitutional law professor mindset. He never exhibits any aspect of the blind rage that drove him to murder his father or of his excessive hubris. Contemplative, deliberate, scholarly even, Jeremiah’s Oedipus is so tamed down there isn’t much for anyone else in the play to react to, or fear, or resent, or plot against, or lust after or grieve. It would have fared better for the production if his performance reflected more Bill Clinton than the current president in demeanor.
Lulu Ward as Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife/mother gives the most intriguing performance in the show, creating a very human Jocasta and negotiating the formality of the script’s elevated language with natural ease and clarity. G. David Trosko as Creon, the “man who would be king”, or by rights should have been after his brother King Laius got killed, shows promise as a military aristocrat capable of intrigue. Again, the script muzzles him with academic formality and restraint, creating little dramatic tension with Oedipus.
Production elements enhance the performance unevenly. As often done, this production is set as a modern day occurrence. Costumes in rich color, contrast, tone and stark style (Rhonda Gorman) reinforce the play’s serious themes. But projected video clips of generic police state riots opening the show (Beau Banning) feel disconnected from it. Out of context and not referenced in the script, it’s hard to tell if these violent scenes reflect King Oedipus’ supposed cruelty and repression of his people, or? By the traditional script, Thebes is suffering from a terrible plague; the problem isn’t riots and police repression. Nothing in these projected clips indicates ‘plague suffering’, so? The production takes place on a mostly bare stage with actors striding in from four oppositional corners, with elegant dramatic effect (Jeff Franks). Upstage a solitary office chair sits, oddly ignored throughout. If a show contains very few props or set pieces, those used should contribute something. How effective the solitary chair could have been if used, in helping to illustrate Oedipus’ fall from power and grace. Don’t use it? Why not cut it? The last video clip at the production’s end, a close up on Oedipus’ face in disgrace, only weakens the powerful ending of this masterful tragedy and makes it feel like just another installment in a torchy soap opera. If you’ve never seen a production of Oedipus Rex, BGPT’s version faithfully tells the story. But it won’t touch your heart and soul or demonstrate why this play has been produced over and over and over and over again since 429 BC.
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Review of a production that worked well for me, by Mark-Brian Sonna: https://criticalrant.com/2009/04/15/greek-for-berliners-mbs-productions-oedipus-rex/