Return of the King (Oedipus: The Special Edition)

I was recently talking to a playwright who does a lot of work in regional theaters all around the country. He grumbled that he was having a hard time getting his work produced, joking that all of the big theaters are "only interested in plays about f**ked up families." Well, he shouldn't feel too bad; the Pearl Theater Company's sharp but ultimately academic production of The Oedipus Cycle has convinced me that all theater in the western world was founded on a proud heritage of f**ked up families. The name Oedipus, for those of you who have never read… well… anything or met a psychologist, refers to a mythic Greek king from Thebes who unwittingly murdered his father and bedded his own mother afterwards. This doesn't work out very well for him or his children. Sophocles' Oedipus Cycle consists of three smaller plays from three separate trilogies – Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone — and spans three generations, with each exploring the historic tragedy of the Oedipal family. The Pearl Theater's production marks the debut of a brisk new translation by Peter Constantine that condenses the whole cycle into three hours.

What most struck me about Constantine's translation was the seeming focus on Ancient Greek religion, which, according to some quick research online, isn't usually the hallmark of the Sophocles text. Here, nearly every big action is preceded or followed by a speech bemoaning that character's "fate" or "destiny" or "curse." This deterministic mindset is almost belabored in the script, but it certainly raises interesting questions about accountability. For instance, in Oedipus at Colonus the audience has probably forgiven old, self-blinded Oedipus – after all, he was destined to kill his father and have intercourse with his mother. If Apollo prophesied it, what could Oedipus do about it?

In terms of the modern significance of the Oedipus story, should blaming his unfortunate circumstances on the gods allow Oedipus to shrug off responsibility for his actions? Don't we tell these stories so we can learn how characters deal with the consequences of their mistakes? Or do we go to theater just to see a series of events unfold by divine intervention? In exploring these different interpretations, I'm not saying that Constantine's translation fails in any way. I only point them out because these questions seem to lead to a place of undeniable interest… directly into the heart of Western Theater. Constantine and director Shepard Sobel attack most of the material admirably, molding a taut infrastructure that emphasizes brevity, but is still loose enough to leave room for these big ideas of guilt and destiny.

Part one of the evening, Oedipus the King, succeeds nicely because Sobel and Constantine open with such an air of confidence and contentment in the character of Oedipus. Aided of course by Jay Stratton’s punchy performance as the Theban king, the character's initial happiness enhances his inevitable fall at the end of the narrative. After restoring peace to Thebes, Oedipus learns that bringing the former king's murderer to justice is the only cure for a sickness spreading through his kingdom. The murderer turns out to be Oedipus, of course, and the former king turns out to be his father, whose widow Oedipus married and sired children with. Any contemporary actor playing the title role has an unenviable task towards the end – the moaning devastation of Oedipus must be mythological in scale, Stratton succeeds admirably at this, along with the rest of the largely game cast. Dominic Cuskern and TJ Edwards, as Tiresias and a Shepard respectively, are particularly deft.

Probably the least produced of the cycle and also the last full play by Sophocles, Sobel and Constantine's Oedipus at Colonus presents an emotive portrayal of the last days of Oedipus. Exiled from Thebes by his own sons years after part one, the now blind Oedipus and his daughters wander into the sacred area called Colonus, just outside Athens. It seems Oedipus' two sons have gone to war over the throne of Thebes and the embittered old man wants nothing more than for his violent brood to destroy themselves. Mr. Edwards takes over the role of Oedipus, lending him much charm and pathos. In one very sympathetic moment he says of his past, “I suffered these deeds more than committed them.” Also, Jolly Abraham's performance as Antigone is superb. The only drawback in this terrific "second act" is the unfortunate double casting of Susan Heyward as Ismene and Polynices – though the concept of casting one performer as two of Oedipus' children is strong, Ms. Heyward's portrayal of Polynices the soldier reads as overly meek.

With Antigone, Constantine and Sobel’s production runs out of steam, despite an unswervingly strong performance from Ms. Abraham in the lead role. In the aftermath of the violent war between Oedipus’ sons – Polynices and Eteocles – his daughter Antigone faces death for defying King Creon and attempting to bury one of her dead and dishonored brothers. John Livingston Rolle gives a solid turn as Creon, as does Ms. Heyward in her reprisal of Ismene, but somewhere along the way the lack of urgency in Antigone’s predicament causes this Antigone peter out.

Throughout the evening Constantine and Sobel call on the magnetic Ms. Heyward to deliver all the “bad news speeches” or epilogues. In one such speech she says, “These things are now unalterable in their authority.” Though compellingly staged and faultlessly designed, The Pearl Theater’s Oedipus Cycle mostly feels like an interesting experiment in practicality and so never seeks to become the “unalterable authority” on the Oedipus mythos. That said: it is a perfectly viable, accessible means of experiencing Western Theater’s original f***ked up family.

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