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Oedipus Requiem

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OEDIPUS REQUIEM

Blind Parrot Productions

Sophocles, the great writer of tragedies in Athens in the fifth century BC, took three plays to tell the legend of the king Oedipus and his family--as if the saga's grand and grim events were too much to comprehend, or to bear, in one dose. Here is the ultimate story of man struggling to understand himself and his relationship to God--the story of a succession of hero-kings whose search for self-knowledge and self-justification leads them face-to-face with their darkest primal urges and their deepest understanding of grief and pain. Written for a society grappling with political and religious uncertainty--and one so readily recognizable to societies throughout the ages--Sophocles' Theban trilogy, consisting of Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, is a relentless tale of crime and punishment. The crimes are all the more horrible for being committed in ignorance, the punishments all the more terrible for involving the loss not only of the criminals' lives but of the lives of innocent loved ones.

In reshaping these three plays into a single play, David Perkins might seem to be defying disaster with an ambition Oedipus himself might have feared. And by employing the form of a memory play, in which the story is related in hallucinatory, fragmented flashbacks, Perkins's Oedipus Requiem certainly goes against the structure of Greek tragedy, with its chronological unfolding of narrative.

But the risks Perkins has taken in adapting and directing Oedipus Requiem from various translations of the three Sophocles texts have paid off handsomely. Oedipus Requiem is an often beautiful and always interesting work. It has its problems, and the three hours are uneven; but when it clicks--when Perkins's directorial intelligence and his actors' talents mesh with the classic material--the effect is electric.

Perkins's notion is to present the story of three generations of sorrow as remembered by Oedipus's daughter Antigone; as she awaits death in her tiny tomb, where she has been walled up by her uncle King Creon for burying her dead brother in defiance of Creon's edict, Antigone is visited by figures from the past. At first the wash of images is jumbled--which seems a real enough reflection of Antigone's mental state, but which is confusing for any audience that isn't freshly familiar with the story. (Perkins's assumption that his audience will know the details of the Oedipus legend is, I think, a mistake that he would do well to rectify if he takes this script any further.) After a while, though, as Antigone's thoughts calm down--and as the audience becomes more attuned' to the play's theatrical language--the epic story's various strands emerge and interweave in a moving and illuminating manner.

In particular, Perkins's adaptation clarifies the link between three generations of Theban royalty who are destroyed by their interaction with each other. Oedipus's father Laios (whom we never see), told by an oracle that he would die at his son's hand, had ordered that his infant heir be murdered; but the order was disobeyed by a softhearted shepherd, and the child was sent to another city. He returns to Thebes as a young man, unwittingly kills his father in a fight, and then takes over his father's throne and his wife--Oedipus's mother. The tragedy is replayed after Oedipus's fall, when his son Polyneices turns on him and is just as inevitably destroyed. Paralleling these events is the relationship between Oedipus's brother-in-law and eventual successor, Creon, and Creon's son Haimon--father and son who, like Laios and Oedipus and Oedipus and Polyneices, are locked in a terrible conflict of fate. Absorbed over the course of three long plays, these connections work on the audience's mind subliminally; presented in stark relief in one pared-down adaptation of the trilogy, they strike with startling force.

Sophocles' complex working out of the the legend's overriding theme--what is man?--is also approached by Perkins in a series of interesting directorial touches. For instance, the question of Oedipus's search for who he is is symbolized in the plays' emphasis on vision and blindness--it is the blind prophet Teiresius who clues the king in to the awful truth; and in his grief and shame upon learning the truth, Oedipus blinds himself. Perkins underlines the eye motif through a clever use of costume accessories--Oedipus's bodyguard wears intimidating dark glasses, and Creon, the bureaucrat thrust into power by the rush of events, wears eyeglasses before assuming the throne but takes them off after ascending it, when his royal alienation leads him blindly into his own tragic mistakes.

The link between Creon and Oedipus, which guides Perkins in his visualization and his shaping of the material, is cemented in the script's juxtaposition of the ending of Antigone, with Creon's final recognition of his failure, and the ending of Oedipus at Colonus, with Oedipus's climactic achievement of peace in death after long years of torment and wandering. Perkins successfully aims for a sense of consolation and conciliation in the accumulation of sorrow and self-awareness that propels the Theban trilogy.

With an exceptionally large cast for a non-Equity production, Oedipus Requiem is occasionally marred by inconsistent acting; but the ensemble passages are quite affecting--with the chorus functioning as the socially diverse group of individuals that makes up a city--and there are superb individual performances by Larry Neumann Jr. as Oedipus, Palmar Hardy as his wife-mother, Jocasta, Wendy Fulton as the servant who describes Jocasta's suicide, Tim Decker as Polyneices, Brian Shaw as Haimon, and Dorothy Bernard as the androgynous Teiresius (here presented as a tough old woman in the robe of an Oxford don accompanied by a gaunt undergraduate assistant). Michael Mix's sprawling set, an expanse of white stairways and platforms with Antigone's tomb at its core (just as the inevitability of death is at the core of Sophocles' immortal masterpiece) makes a beautiful three-dimensional canvas for Kurt Ottinger's dramatic, red-dominated lighting scheme. Darice Damata-Geiger's costume design, in an early-20th-century mode, intelligently clarifies the social and familial relationships of the characters and their physical and emotional developments.

As is appropriate to a requiem, there is also some lovely music--choral odes and soliloquies set to elegiac, neo-impressionist melodies by composer and pianist Robert Ian Winstin. However, the score is often undermined by clunky and imprecise choral singing--a matter that should be attended to during the production's run, because it is a notable flaw in what is otherwise an eloquent and intelligent evening of poetic theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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