Oedipus at Colonus is a play in which the viewer gets the sense that behind every action, object, even emotion, lies a whole world of hidden significance. Even death, the grand subject matter of one of Sophocles’ final dramatic explorations before his own trek to the netherworld, is secret in this play. Handcart Ensemble’s current production of this rarely produced masterpiece represents this symbolic hidden-ness too well, allowing the words of Eamon Grennan and Rachel Kitzinger’s new translation to breathe, while the dramatic juice of Sophocles’ story remains hidden under sleepy layers of symbol. What remains is an aesthetically pleasing meditation on death, family and forgiveness which never translates into emotion. While the depth of feeling available in the writing is largely lost in this production, it is a worthy one in that it provides a sense of what one of the creators of our theatrical sensibilities had to say about three of the themes that continue to permeate our stages.
Oedipus at Colonus tells the story of Oedipus’ final hours. The blind old man has spent his life wandering homeless, and has finally come to a field in front of Athens, led by his faithful daughter/sister Antigone. He has come to terms with his own horrific mistakes (“If someone tried to kill you would you stop to inquire if he was your father, or would you strike back to revenge the blow?”), but still holds pains and grudges against his son and brother-in-law, both of whom make appearances in the play.
While many things take place over the course of the evening - characters come and go, arguments, persuasion and acceptance, a curse or two and some blessings – the drama is set up as the end of a journey, both physical and spiritual, of one of the world’s most pitied men. The action itself as if does not matter. Kreon kidnaps Oedipus’ daughters, and a moment later they return. Antigone (a strong performance by Emily Rogge) convinces her father to give audience to his son Polyneices, during which the blind man stands firm in his stubborn position. Oedipus comes into the play knowing its end, and his own, and the plenty of coming and going is simply a philosophical playground for a great writer to splash around in.
The production emphasizes the symbolic nature of the play, making the costumes, set and even the acting style stand out, thus continually pulling the audience in and out of the story. Director Karen Lordi-Kirkham stresses the ritualistic element of Greek theatre, and of this play in particular, through an imaginative treatment of Sophocles’ Chorus. A prayer bowl, myrtle branches, hand gestures toward the heavens, all remind us time and again that the theater was a religious place for the Greeks.
However, Lordi-Kirkham’s attempt while admirable, is muddied by her need to couple the ancient sensibility with an occasional catering to the aesthetics of a modern audience. As such, in the production certain scenes from the ancient tragedy bring to mind our own generation’s imagery for the future. The big showdown between Kreon and Theseus, for example, could have easily been a Star Treckian intergalactic dispute. The Chorus is transformed from one of elderly citizens of Colonus in the script, into a young female triplet that seem to conjure Buffy the Vampire along with the Furies, the ancient goddesses of the field, in Handcart’s production. The flaming red costume of Kreon, another symbolic choice that leaves its meaning backstage, could have possibly been further enhanced by a pair of Spock ears.
A solid performance by Peter Judd as Oedipus does keep the production grounded. It is a somehow soothing experience to watch nearly two hours of a lead actor in blindfold who seldom moves from his seat. One can almost see a hint of Beckettian minimalism in Sophocles here. One of the evening’s strongest moments comes from a silent, still Judd, angrily listening to his son’s attempts to elicit his support in war.
The sum total of the evening is a pleasantly boring experience of a truly great play in a steady new translation. The opportunity to catch it may not return anytime in the next few decades.