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Oedipus

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If you've never seen an Oedipus that ended with the entire cast singing Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now," you're not alone. There's a certain cockeyed, ironic thrill in watching a company of actors bang out the song's accompaniment on triangles, maracas, and tambourines while singing a pop standard of hopeful optimism. It's an appropriately jarring condensation of the story of a king who wasn't capable of seeing the truth until it was too late.

But this song doesn't (and couldn't) cap off a traditional translation of the stately, serious treatment that most theatregoers know from Sophocles's Greek tragedy. It could only be a part of Ted Hughes's modern spin on Seneca's Roman interpretation, which strips away the marble-hard sturdiness and perceived pretensions of the well-known story about the Theban king who murders his father, marries his mother, and brings a plague to his kingdom, and finds baser, more mystical truths underneath.

This is what Theater By The Blind tackles in its new production, which runs at the Mint Space through June 26. However, in attempting to give the work an even greater contemporary relevance, the company has subverted much of the power they might otherwise bring out in the material: The production is set in a location that - except for the specificity of a few key details - is clearly intended to be the Oval Office of the White House, in more or less the present day.

Whether you consider director Ike Schambelan to be making a comment about the current state of America or its behavior in world affairs will depend most on your position on the ideological spectrum. Oedipus can easily be seen as either a simple-minded, God-fearing leader in the control of powers far greater than he can comprehend, or as a cagey diplomat who does what he can with the time he has until fate plays its final hand. Schambelan, to his credit, doesn't take sides, though his Oedipus, George Ashiotis, does wear an American flag lapel pin (the cast's crisp suits are the work of designer Christine Field) that perhaps pushes the point a bit too far.

Regardless, it's easy to understand the appeal of both Hughes's adaptation and the updated setting held for Schambelan: The clash of today's political businessmen and the ritualistic behavior the characters engage in at a number of points would allow for interesting social parallels and memorable stage pictures. The original 1968 production of Hughes's adaptation had the benefit of direction by the visionary Peter Brook, who was undoubtedly able to easily conceptualize the battle between the barbaric past and the equally barbaric present into something that commented on that time much the way Schambelan wants to comment on today.

But he never fully reconciles Hughes's radicalism with the staunch conservatism he wants to bring out in the cast, the costumes, and the set (by Merope Vachlioti). The resulting effect is one that's often unintentionally comic instead of unsettling, and never seems to sit comfortably when the action drifts too far away from issues of governmental and personal obligation. Hughes, in eliding most of the traditional mythological elements, wanted to focus on the harsh, tribal realities of early civilization in the other scenes, to find in them a reality that Sophocles's version eschews in favor of high tragedy.

That never comes through in Schambelan's staging, which makes the contributions of the peripheral characters like the blind prophet Tiresias (J.M. McDonough) and the shepherd (Pamela Sabaugh) who long ago saved the young Oedipus's life, lack much higher dramatic meaning. Gone is most of the usual reliance on questions of free will and pre-determination, with only remnants of it visible in the performance of Nicholas Viselli, who plays the world-wise Creon with a fiery verve that better unites political anger of past and present better than anything else in this production.

That also includes Ashiotis, who appears stiff onstage, and seldom displays a secure command of his lines; his Oedipus is almost entirely lacking in charisma, forcefulness, and energy, and is only roused from his perpetually sleepy state once he's blinded himself. Melanie Boland nicely blends maternal and wifely concerns as Jocasta, but falters later on as her character's sanity does, and her rebuke of the actions of her husband - and the womanhood that helped produce him - are firmly delivered but don't ring particularly true.

She, like everyone else, tries very hard to make concrete sense of Schambelan's not fully realized vision, and they all succeed at - if nothing else - preventing the show from ever being boring. But nor does it excite or startle until the final moments, when the cast (led by the energetic Viselli) lifts their voices in song, belting out Nash's words with fervent dedication. If it's a bright, bright sunshiny day for them, a few obstacles remain in our way of completely appreciating this Oedipus.

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Theater By The Blind
Oedipus
Through June 26
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Mint Space, 311 West 43rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenue, 5th floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix