Oedipus, as currently presented at the American Repertory Theater, is a fascinating, multi-layered look into what it means to discover truth in identity.
At first, we think we are walking into the cozy confines of a familiar play, but we’re in for a surprise. Staged by Artistic Director Robert Woodruff, Oedipus is cracked open and splayed out for all to see, to bear witness to the inner workings of “man.”
Upon entering the auditorium, a female voice whispers odd questions such as “What happened? What happened? How did it happen? How could it happen? It’s certain it happened. It is very clear it happened”; “What possessed you to come”; and “Based on but not limited to your own area, can you tell if the present world is in crisis?” among others. Our brains start churning, thinking of meanings and answers.
After titillating the ears, the eyes are next. The set is wide open, concealing nothing behind a curtain except for an onstage dressing room. The playing area is delineated by a square concrete foundation with a concrete roof hovering over it an altar with a blue flame burning within it and with offerings of flowers stands crooked downstage. Upstage, a mannequin in a suit is dangling from one of the ceiling corners, held up by his middle, an object neither dead nor alive.
The actors begin warming up physically and vocally on stage, while the musical ensemble tunes up on one side of the playing area. Folding chairs surround the playing area, providing onstage seating for the actors waiting for their cues to enter the playing area.
Everything is exposed. This isn’t a simulacrum of a “Greek” play. It is a display of human nature unencumbered by time and place.
Oedipus, played by a powerful John Campion, is a brash but fair king, at wits end because of a plague infecting his kingdom. It seems Apollo demands the killer of King Laius, Oedupus’ predecessor, be purged from the kingdom in order to restore the its health. If the killer comes forward, Oedipus will be lenient. If he continues to hide, he will be banished penniless once discovered.
In order to rout the culprit, Oedipus calls for the wisest man in the land, the blind prophet Tiresias (played with majesty by Novella Nelson), to solve the crime. When he exposes Oedipus as the murderer, he is threatened and accused by Oedipus of being an agent of Kreon (Michael Potts), brother of Oedipus’ wife Jocasta (Stephanie Roth-Haberle) to usurp the throne.
Logic then comes into play. Step by step, the mystery is solved and the truth is discovered that Oedipus is indeed the murderer and more heinously, the husband of his own mother. Jocasta, who clung to the notion that the gods were wrong, that they are fallible, kills herself out of shame, Oedipus inflicts his own justice upon himself, to be banished penniless from Thebes. He blinds himself as an act of humility. No longer is he allowed to see the beauty of the world and is forever forced to wander in introspection.
The gods are the driving force behind the play, leaving the mortals to be punished for human ignorance. It is not a tale of morality, because morality is not a concern of the gods. So if man is innocent of the choices he makes and the gods are not punishing man for his actions, what is the theme of the play?
Campion plays Oedipus with the control of a scientist. He mixes the qualities of brashness, boldness, concern, violence, and inquisitiveness to create a multi-faceted king who, in the end, becomes one of the most sympathetic characters in theater history. The act of blinding himself, which is a part of the stage design, adds an inspired touch that allows the audience to remember that these are players on a stage, they are actors that exist in the “real” world, just like we do. We will all have to leave the auditorium and ultimately go home to face ourselves.
Roth-Haberle as Jocasta is probably too young for the role, as she certainly looks younger than her partner. Yet she manages to evoke the duality of mind that is the queen. Jocasta is clearly content with her life until this moment. There is an intimate moment between the royal couple, binding them even closer to each other and their crime. Yet Jocasta seems to waver on stage, knowing and yet denying her intuition, believing in yet doubting the gods. Her death reinforces the multiplicity of her shame.
Thomas Derrah leads the brilliant chorus, which is still an incongruity to our sensibilities of theater. They are the townsfolk, the observers, yet they are set apart by the simple fact that they sing. But musical director and composer Evan Ziporyn makes the chorus work by not only using the distance we as a western audience feel, but by capitalizing on it.
The chorus is operatic, harmonic, and enticing. They sing in Greek and are choreographed (Saar Magal) to move as a sacred unit, their actions perhaps a bit too slick for such a raw play. The chorus seems to exist in a realm not quite on the same plane as the play. It becomes a separate entity resonating the timelessness of the play. Even the supertitles are unnecessary as the chorus somehow seems to naturally evoke the problems of a society gone sour, essentially personifying the nightmarish quality of fate.
As composer, this is Ziporyn’s first dabbling in creating music for the stage, and what a play to start with. He juxtaposes the grace and elegance of the chorus with the dissonant mix of electric cello and keyboard, guitars and percussion. The result is a modern primal call of woe.
In our Matrix-minded, post 9/11, terrorist-fearing mentality, a man suspended in the sky can mean many things. This Oedipus becomes fodder for thought for the audience. In our television, radio, headphone wearing, car stereo blasting society, it is rare to be introspective and perhaps considered suspect. The Oracle of Apollo tells us “Gnothi Seauton” — Know Thyself. Why has the simple yet complex act of self-examination become so frightening to us?
Oedipus at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge through June 13. For performance and ticket information, call 617-547-8300 or visit www.amrep.org.