"Yearning For The Truth at Any Cost..."
Classical theater needn’t be tedious, as Golden West College reminds us each season. If properly done, a thundering tragedy from say, the 4th century B.C., can project as much immediacy as any current realistic drama on Netflix or Broadway, or even in the White House.
A fine case in point is Sophocles' “Oedipus Rex,” one of three surviving Theban plays that deal with the story of Oedipus. “Oedipus Rex” was the second to be written, following "Antigone" by about a dozen years. However, in terms of the chronology of events described in the plays, it comes first, followed by "Oedipus at Colonus" and then “Antigone.” This is a compelling tale of jealousy, revenge and senseless murder, stirring emotions most familiar to the human heart, and one superbly directed and illuminated in rich detail by Tom Amen. Director Amen and Tim Mueller are both credited with this adaptation of the classic.
First of all, this is not your typical stage play, although that was the original intention. Unfortunately, the pandemic won the hand and production was delayed for a while, then resumed in a more creative way. The team decided to film the play, using masks, which essentially muffled the dialogue.
The crew then reshot the play without masks, using COVID-19 protocols, resulting in a clearer, crisper, more defined vocal soundtrack, which was then edited into the earlier film in a final format. The show, “Oedipus Rex,” premiered to the public last Friday evening, March 18th, to rousing applause and glowing critiques, and will be officially uploaded and available for viewing by March 25th. You may watch for that notification on either their facebook page or website: www.gwctheater.com
“Oedipus Rex” is structured as a puzzle, a mystery, an escape room with no exit; its much-copied plot involves a leader whose inquiry into a crime actually unspools his own personal history of criminality. This is not exactly an impeachment hearing but it does come close.
At the epicenter of this torrent of emotion is Patrick Peterson’s towering Oedipus. He begins with regal benevolence, a ramrod-straight conqueror, a king at home with the mighty power he wields on behalf of his people. He ends crumpled, weeping and all but helpless. It’s an epic transition, to say the least. Carrie Vinikow’s Jocasta isn’t called on to be quite as intense, but it’s a nightmarish moment when Ms. Vinikow gradually morphs from levity to horror as the Queen sees precisely what her husband’s quest will expose.
There is a chorus after every scene which is read by a group of people who represent the citizens of Thebes, writhing and gasping at times as if all were living out their final moments. The chorus is illuminated with what feels like both celestial brightness and ghostly shadows by Lighting Designer Ryan Lindhardt. And we are, it feels, one among them, citizens faced with an existential collective threat that needs immediate action.
And what is that collective threat? The great city of Thebes is in trouble. A plague has descended, and nothing—from grain in the fields to babies in the womb—will grow. The citizens make a wailing procession to the palace of their king, Oedipus, who rose to power after the unsolved murder of the former king, Laius. Oedipus consoles his people, and he has sent to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi to ask what they can do about their suffering. The answer returns via his brother-in-law Creon. Laius’s murderer is somewhere in their midst, so they must drive him out.
Oedipus rains curses on the head of the unknown murderer, and vows to find him. He summons the blind prophet Tiresias, who speaks for Apollo, and slowly unearths the terrible truth. Tiresias at first refuses to talk, but, when Oedipus accuses him of the murder, he rounds on the king and tells him that Oedipus himself is the murderer. Paranoid that Tiresias is the pawn of Creon, Oedipus storms off in a rage before he can hear the kicker: Laius was his actual father, so in marrying Laius’s widow Jocasta, Oedipus has married his own mother.
Creon confronts Oedipus, angry that Oedipus has accused Creon of plotting against him. The two men squabble until Jocasta separates them. When she hears what’s wrong, she assures Oedipus that prophecies are meaningless. She and Laius themselves once received a prophecy that their son would kill Laius and marry his mother, so they drove a stake through their baby’s ankles and left him to die. And voila! No prophecy! But Oedipus seems shocked and confused by this information. Once the truth has come out, Jocasta, in shame and humiliation, hangs herself. Lamenting over her body in agony, Oedipus takes the pins from her dress and pokes out his own eyes.
By the show’s conclusion, we have been drawn firmly into this nightmarish story. Mr. Peterson’s character goes from having an ordinary kind of day to being canceled in a way that makes today’s reputational demolitions seem benign. He is utterly convincing as a man devastated by his own behavior, comprehending his fate on a moment-by-moment basis with dramatic tension and progressive self-discovery.
Mr. Keister, in a double-role, does well to capture Creon’s authority and indignation under fire of false accusations, as well as portraying an ominously eccentric Tiresias. Ms. Vinikow’s guilt-ridden and hysterical Jocasta is powerfully potent, and Matt Koutroulis as the Priest is a consistently stable picture of rationale in the court. Luke Brodowski’s pivotal Messenger scene is frank, straightforward and honest, revealing much to the plot. And both the servants, played by Mason Meskell and Zakk Hurt, are loyal, authentic and true.
Director Amen’s production is stark and stylized, a world of ferocious, unforgiving pagan gods who toy with humans like willful children gleefully dismembering their Barbies. These are gods of wreck and ruin, not salvation and celebration. Oedipus seeks enlightenment at the Oracle’s urging, but when he achieves it, he’s so tormented by Jocasta's death, he is compelled to mutilate his eyes until he’s in total darkness.
The blinded Oedipus presents himself to his horrified people. Creon takes charge of the kingdom and asks the gods what should become of Oedipus. Oedipus makes (and is granted) one final request: to embrace his little daughters before he meets the next chapter of his fate.
That struggle infuses Oedipus' character. While he, like most Thebans, believes that destiny is inescapable, he refuses to live as if he believes it. He is the smartest man onstage, the solver of great riddles, and if there is a tragic flaw to his design, it's his insatiable appetite for the truth.
Yet, even after he’d murdered his father and slept with his mother, King Oedipus of Thebes still could have changed his missile-like trajectory toward damnation. All he needed to do was stop asking questions. End his relentless pursuit of self-knowledge. Had he listened to his wife Jocasta when she begged him to stop seeking answers about his birth, had he not sent for the ancient shepherd who knew the secret of his true parentage — things might have been different.
True, Oedipus’ past actions wouldn’t have changed — he still would have been married to his mother. But he would have gone to his grave believing in his guiltlessness. All of which begs the thorniest of questions: Is it better to bumble along in ignorance of your own part in the world’s ugliness or is it better to see things as they are — even if the sight of them destroys you?
So, fast-forward 2,700 years. We may have computers, microwave ovens and cable TV, but we still live in a society that yearns to believe in oracles, whether it's the armchair psychic predictions in the tabloids, cultural superstitions, or our obsession with the existence of alien races.
It's a collective abdication of personal responsibility linked, perhaps, to a fear of the truth. That's why Oedipus remains such a fascinating character, and that's why Sophocles' play is such an incredible piece of theater. It's randy, it's racy, it's sexy, and it's depraved, but it's also about a man who yearns for the truth at any cost. The real lesson of Oedipus is that the truth is out there, and it will set you free. But the price for that freedom is the sobering realization that the truth may be more intense, painful and lonely than any of us care to bear.
SOPHOCLES’ OEDIPUS REX, A Film Adaptation by TOM AMEN and TIM MUELLER; Directed by TOM AMEN; Production and Scenic Design by TIM MUELLER; Lighting Design by RYAN LINDHARDT; Costume and Mask Design by AMANDA MARTIN; Sound Design by PAISHA BLEICH; Cinematography by RALPH LINDHARDT; Directed for the Camera by JOCK PETERSEN; Edited by JOCK PETERSEN, MICHAEL RILEY, and TIM MUELLER; Sound Recording and Editing by AIDAN PETERSEN; Stage Managed by MICHAEL RILEY.
WITH: PATRICK PETERSON as Oedipus; SCOTT KEISTER as Creon/Tiresias; CARRIE VINIKOW as Jocasta; MATT KOUTROULIS as Priest; LUKE BRODOWSKI as Messenger; MASON MESKELL as Servant 1; ZAKK HURT as Servant 2.
LUKE BRODOWSKI, MASON MAESKELL, ZAKK HURT, ERIN WITECKI, DIANNA PEREZ, HEATHER BUCKLER and LYNNE PHAM as The Chorus.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report