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Oedipus at Colonus

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Oedipus at Colonus
Photo by Kah Poon.

If Oedipus was alive today, living the tragic life that he lived within Sophocles' dramas, he would be hopped up on anti-depressant cocktails, careening down highways in his car and swooning off of building ledges. And with good reason, too. After having inadvertently slept with and married his mother, killed his father, endured his wife/mother's suicide and gouged his own eyes out, no one would have blamed him for seeking an early, eternal earth bed. People's psyches these days are destroyed for less. However, the gods had another fate for him in store. It is this very fate that is explored in Handcart Ensemble's Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles' play sandwiched between Oedipus the King and Antigone. Translated by Eamon Grennan and Rachel Kitzinger in 2004, this version written entirely in verse chronicles the last days of his life and the final fulfillment of Apollo's prophecy.

By the time an aged and blind Oedipus (Peter Judd) stumbles into a village near Athens named Colonus and onto the sacred ground of the Eumenides (3 female personifications of vengeance for the murder of family members), led by his loving daughter Antigone (Emily Rogge), his stock value has hit the roof. Ismene (a whiny Laurie Schroeder), Oedipus' other daughter, soon arrives to share the news from home. Now in exile from being thrown out of his kingdom of Thebes by his sons, oracles abound about the fruitfulness of his death. Many prophesy that the land where Oedipus is buried will be blessed by the gods, and he soon becomes a hot commodity with his hateful brother-in-law Creon (Ned Butikofer) and his son Polyneices (an earnest Nicholas Moran), who both want to insure the prosperity of their kingdoms by dragging him back to their respective lands. As trouble looms nearby with the marching of men, Oedipus holds steady, knowing that he has arrived at his fated tomb per Apollo's prediction. To be accepted into the folds of the Eumenides, Oedipus earns the favor of Theseus (an erratically regal Michael Graves), king of Athens, who offers Oedipus sanctuary and citizenship to live out his remaining days.

The most noteworthy aspect of this production in several ways is the illustration of the Eumenides/Chorus (Susanna Florence, Sarah Shahinian, Allison Schubert) The play commences with their mere suggestion, cleverly hiding behind Tijana Bjelajac's functional set in a silhouette that resembles the Hindu god Shiva but that is also reminiscent of Dante and Virgil's depictions. Director Karen Lordi-Kirkham choreographs stylized movements and arranges diction and repetition in a bold, satisfying manner, but goes easy on the menace that many people who are accustomed to their portrayals (as Furies, Erinyes, etc) may have seen. Usually thought of as horrific with wreaths of serpents around their heads and eyes dripping with blood, the Eumenides here are kinder and more romantic, donning pretty goddess costumes by Cherie Cunningham and faint, dark makeup around their eyes to indicate peril. Although each actress is impressive, Shahinian trumps all, both in her solo performance as Tisiphone and as a team member.

The remainder of the production is strong, but there are a few weaknesses and questionable choices. The original music by Robert Pound, although integral to the emotion of the piece, draws attention to the lack of projection in the actors' voices. The shared scenes between Butikofer as Creon and Graves as Theseus reveal an imbalance in dominance, with Graves' posture and temperament occasionally deferring to Butikofer. It doesn't help that Graves flubs his lines in a moment where he needs to exude power. Although the costumes are almost uniformly beautiful, some of the men wear sandals that are recognizable in the 20th century. King Theseus' Tevas are especially amusing, even though they match the color of his kingly robes. The pacing of the play, though punctuated with momentum in the beginning and middle, slows down considerably in the end.

Oedipus at Colonus is a well-greased production that not only stands well on its own, but paves the way for the follow-up play, Antigone, both in dialogue and strength of character and devotion in actress Emily Rogge as Antigone. It is a classic tale of acceptance, salvation and the conclusion to suffering, and a troublesome discussion of the distinction placed between responsibility and fate. Oedipus at Colonus also concludes Oedipus' metamorphosis from abominable to heroic from Oedipus the King to now. From fighting his fate to accepting it, he is now free to reap the rewards of his punishment and suffering by receiving absolution from Zeus. And as patrons of this theatrical experience, we are privy to enjoying his journey.

Oedipus at Colonus
Through January 26
14th Street Y Theater, 344 East 14th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes, with no intermission.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix