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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Guthrie's Oedipus is Bloodless
By Michelle Pett

Oedipus
Peter Macon (Oedipus) and Isabell Monk O'Connor (Jocasta)
Everyone knows about Oedipus. It's a 3,000-year-old story about a guy who kills his dad, marries his mom and then blinds himself when he discovers the truth. It's got legs. But does anyone remember the crime at the genesis of this bloody affair? Anyone? You in the back row with the smirk: Do you recall what happened to a tiny baby on Mount Citheron? No? Well, Ellen McLaughlin remembers; she's written a contemporary adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus to shed new light on the tale. The Guthrie Theater remembers; it's giving her play a cerebral production that's more successful engaging our heads than our hearts.

McLaughlin's Oedipus is a detective story. Oedipus, the mighty King of Thebes, must use his cleverness to unmask the murderer of the former king, Laius. The presence of this unpunished killer is a corruption of the body politic, creating a plague on the citizenry. Oedipus' investigation ultimately ends in his own mirror. Collateral damage abounds, including: an ally lost to bitter accusation (Creon), a prophet banished (Tiresias) and a beloved wife broken (Jocasta).

Cowardice lies at the heart of the story. Laius, fearing a prophecy that Baby Oedipus would be his killer, ordered his death by exposure. Jocasta didn't prevent it. The story of her submerged guilt provides the emotional core of the piece. Emphasizing his abandonment makes Oedipus a more convincing victim than a victimizer. In today's Oprah culture, victims don't put out their eyes, nor are they banished. Thus, Jocasta's suicide is heart-wrenchingly understandable, while Oedipus' denouement feels overcooked.

Peter Macon's Oedipus is regal, booming-voiced and just a tad wild-eyed. His performance is most successful when he tells the tale of his trip to the oracle at Delphi and the subsequent murder of Laius on the road to Thebes. Stephen Yoakam's Creon finds subtle humor in Oedipus' accusation that he has designs on the throne. Tiresias (Sandra Shipley), with a scarred face, vacant eyes, Albert Einstein hair and a wispy beard, is just plain spooky; when she tells Oedipus "it is a curse to know too much," you believe her. But it's Isabell Monk O'Connor's masterful work as Jocasta that stands out in this production. She pushes her performance to the emotional edge; you can't look away from the train wreck.

Director Lisa Peterson and Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez stage the action on a simple set: neutral-colored, lap-sided walls are staggered across the upstage area, a stripped-down grand piano hangs vertically from the ceiling over a musical "altar" at stage right, and the floor looks like polished black marble. Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind plays tricks with light, creating weird effects like casting the Chorus' shadows against the back walls. Costume Designer David Zinn dresses the Chorus in black and blue work-a-day clothing while Oedipus and his entourage are in shades of black, bronze and silver dupioni silk and gold lame. The effect is eminently regal - of this world but not of it.

Like Macon's beautiful silver silk jacket, Peterson weaves many fascinating threads into this Oedipus: the use of organic, live sound; the ritualized, a cappella songs of the Chorus; the simple style of storytelling that each character uses during their monologues. Unfortunately, these individual choices sometimes distract from Oedipus' emotional core, making it more "heady" than "hearty." We notice the threads, but miss the cloth.

Oedipus January 15 - February 13, 2005. Thursdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. The Guthrie Theater, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Tickets: $14 - $49. 612-377-2224. Toll Free: 877-44 STAGE. www.guthrietheater.org.


Photo: T Charles Erickson


-- Michelle Pett



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