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Blind

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Blind
Seth Numrich and Veanne Cox.
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

A narcissistic young ruler presiding, as if anointed by the Powers Above themselves, over a land roiling with unnatural hunger, poverty, and death? Where do playwrights get this stuff! Regardless, the story of the fall of Oedipus has never seemed to cry out for modern revisionism. If our relationships to the Gods and prophecy have changed a bit in the last 2,200 or so years, our tendency toward self-destruction has - at the very least - remained at least as acute. It’s just that now, most of the implosions happen in private. So the least surprising surprise of Craig Wright’s sturdy but largely unremarkable new version, titled Blind and now playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is that it’s been shifted from the steps of the palace to Oedipus and Jocasta’s royal bedchamber.

You do gain something fascinating from the move: a glimpse into one of the most bizarre (and disturbing) post-coital conversations imaginable. As the king (Seth Numrich) and queen (Veanne Cox) try to sort out their personal issues while the land and people outside literally rot away, they can’t avoid the most horrid questions of “What did you know and when did you know it?” and “Why did you do it?”, and the even more maddening realizations that they’d prefer to forget everything they’ve learned and just keep right on doing what they have been. If Oedipus and Jocasta know, or at least suspect, the extent of their indiscretions at the play’s opening they’re still enough in denial to not shun their innermost passions.

In exploring the extent of the sexual and spiritual codependency between the two, Wright does make this an unmistakable tale for our times, and sadly not much more improbably than some of the high-profile marriages that litter the news today. (Isn’t Tiger Woods a tragedy of just a slightly different kind?) Director Lucie Tiberghien plays the titillation and violence to the fullest, highlighting the duo’s desperation, despondency, and simmering lust with all the slavering salaciousness of a story for which the National Enquirer might become a Pulitzer Prize finalist. As their argument also consumes the life and attentions of their young maid (Danielle Slavick), you’ve never seen a hotter, colder, or bloodier Oedipus.

What Wright’s treatment lacks by design, but what it could use more of, is scope. All the key characters from the original play - Creon, Tiresias, the Shepherd - are mentioned in passing, but without them (or the chorus of Theban elders) it’s hard to grasp what really warrants all the drama. Takeshi Kata’s set is luxurious, all velvety and shiny high-contrast red and black, that isolates you, as it does Oedipus and Jocasta, from the destruction outside. Forcing the king to crumble before the devastation he helped create is powerful dramatic thinking; our sole representative of the common folk, the maid, is herself too entangled in their problems to remain at an objective distance.

It’s a shame that, to show us how these elites disintegrate when no one else is looking, Wright jettisoned the crucial context that defines how Oedipus and Jocasta got where they are. Also notably missing is poetry: If we shouldn’t expect these folks to speak with the same kind of everyday lyricism that Wright used so well in his play The Pavilion, they would benefit from a more stately link to a higher power or cause. Everyone is very earthbound, which makes their occasional diversions into purple pontificating often sound more silly than trenchant. Example: After Oedipus suggests that Jocasta suspected she was making love to her own son, she replies, "Everyone has a child within them." That rings almost like an intentional parody of introspection; is the idea that those in charge can really be so shallow, or is it an honest attempt to plumb the depths of a woman who admits she can’t explain herself to her husband?

Blind advocates both concepts at different times, which doesn’t help with consistency. On the other hand, the performers make the difficult leaps necessary to validate the various players in this world. Numrich, looking and behaving far younger than most Oedipuses, has a marksman’s grip on the character’s violent brattiness, though his grown-up outbursts are often a bit oversized. Cox deploys her usual vague detachment here, but it’s a clinging fit for Jocasta, who knew she was doomed well before the play starts. Slavick moves very convincingly from the helpless waif to the grown woman who controls far more power than she expects.

The maid’s evolution is one of Wright’s most interesting inventions, showing how the people can strengthen when their leaders weaken, and it’s certainly appropriate for this story. Blind needs more of that sort of thing to be a worthy successor to Sophocles’s Oedipus, rather than just an intriguing experiment. Viewing the forbidden lives of the most public of people is all well and good, but forcing them to see what they’d prefer to turn away from is always going to be more exciting.


Blind
Through March 21
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix