Saturday, October 16, 2010

OEDIPUS KING • Upstream Theater

I kicked it up old school Friday, and I don't mean like a show from the 50's.  I mean like a show from 429 B.C., when OEDIPUS KING was written.  I felt compelled to read up on Greek tragedy a bit before seeing this show.  There were a few things I researched (and when I say research I mean surfing the net) that gave me a better footing when it comes to this stuff.  Here's what I learned -- Hubris is bad.  Dramatic irony is fun.  To be born is to know suffering and then die.  Oh, and don't mock the oracles.

Ensemble of OEDIPUS KING
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Sophocles wrote a ton of plays for the festivals in Athens dedicated to the god Dionysos and OEDIPUS is considered not only his best, but the greatest of all Greek tragedies and a perfect play -- a tragic hero who goes through a complete reversal of fortune -- powerful and confident in the beginning, weak and pitiful at the end.

The Kranzberg Arts Center was perfect for this play.  At the start, the chorus enters, burning incense and lamenting the fact that Thebes is under some sort of curse.  Crops won't grow, women can't have babies, people are dying all over the place -- it's bad.  They beg King Oedipus to help relieve their suffering.  Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to consult the Delphic oracle for advice, and he comes back and tells Oedipus that Thebes is cursed because the killer of the former King Laius has not been brought to justice.  Until this happens, the city will continue to be besieged.  Oedipus vows to find the murderer, banish him and save Thebes, while possibly ridding himself of a threat to his throne.

Amy Loui (Jocasta) and
J. Samuel Davis (Oedipus).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Oedipus makes a plea to his people to come forward with any information they may have, and when the blind prophet Tiresias comes forward, he knows more that he's willing to tell.  He eventually reveals that it is Oedipus himself who is the murderer.  The King becomes enraged and accuses the prophet and Creon of trying to ruin him.

Oedipus' wife Jocasta tries to comfort him by advising him not to put too much faith in prophets.  She tells him that she and the former King Laius, her first husband, were once told by an oracle that Laius would be killed by the hands of their own son, but that never came to pass -- not only did they leave the 3 day old child out in a field for dead, it was common knowledge that Laius was killed by thieves at a crossroad.  Whew, right?  No.  This doesn't comfort Oedipus.  It reminds him of an altercation he'd had at a similar location on the way to Thebes where he killed a man and his attendants.  It also reminds him of a prophecy he was told years earlier -- that he would shed the blood of his father, and mate with his mother.  Not to mention something a drunken man told him when he lived in Corinth -- that he was not the biological son of the man Oedipus had known as his father.  Now this poor guy isn't even sure who he is.

When a shepherd arrives with news of the death of Oedipus' father in Corinth, Oedipus is overjoyed that he many have eluded part of the oracle's prophecy, but he's still concerned about the possibility of committing incest with his mother.  In an effort to ease his mind, the shepherd tells Oedipus that he was adopted by his parents in Corinth.  He knows this because this shepherd was the very man who had been given an abandoned child from the house of Laius who was left in a field, and presented the boy to the then childless King of Corinth.  Everything starts to come together.  Suicide, self-blinding and much sorrow and disgust ensue.  They don't call it tragedy for nothing.

J. Samuel Davis (Oedipus), Alessandra Silva (Ismene)
and Inka Sklodowska (Antigone).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Yes, I've given a lot of plot here, but I couldn't help myself.  There's a lot of story going on, and although many are familiar with the tale, witnessing this character's relentless pursuit for the truth, and how he unravels his own prophetic destiny, is really kind of magical. Those Greeks were good at theatre. 

J. Samuel Davis is an outstanding Oedipus.  I can't even think of a way to describe his arc from proud "child of fortune" to disgraceful outcast.  He's really good -- as is Amy Loui as his wife/mother (ew) Jocasta.  She realizes the truth before he does, and her anguish is quite palpable.  The Greek chorus and ensemble all do fine work as well.  The set, by Michael Heil, is simple but effective -- dominated by a large tilted circle depicting the iconic image of Oedipus and the Sphinx.  It really gets you in the mindset of an ancient story about to unfold.  The lighting by Steve Carmichael and sound by Philip Boehm again are simple, but accent the moments when realizations are made, and foretold futures are revealed.

This is a must see for lovers of theatre.  For real.

There's a really cool entry on the full-out story of Oedipus here.  I'm kinda fascinated with Greek and Roman mythology stuff anyway.  (My car's name is Mercury)


Written by Sophocles, in an English version by David Slavitt
Directed by Philip Boehm
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through October 24 | tickets: $15 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, final Sunday at 3pm

J. Samuel Davis* (Oedipus), Amy Loui* (Jocasta), John Bratkowski*, Christopher Harris*, Dennis Lebby*, Laurie McConnell*, Peter Mayer* and Emily Piro.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Set by Michael Heil; lighting by Steve Carmichael; costumes by LaLonnie Lehman; sound design by Philip Boehm. 

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