Blood Line: The Oedipus/Antigone Story
at the Viaduct Theatre
By Justin Hayford
Any company tackling classical Greek drama must answer one thorny question: Why should a contemporary audience care about ancient royals hounded by gods, driven by prophecies, and plagued by outlandish passions? If we go to the theater to recognize ourselves, to better understand who we are and why we do what we do, why watch a bunch of pantheists running around ascribing their every misfortune to a disgruntled god or family curse?
Of course, if you're producing Euripides--that curiously modern playwright from the fifth century BC--to a large extent your problem is already solved. Euripides made a career out of scaling his culture's heroic myths down to human fables, even introducing a fair amount of psychology into his decidedly pre-Freudian world. In Electra, for example, now being performed by TinFish Productions, he reduces the house of Atreus to a mud hut and the title character to a vengeful, materialistic manipulator with a healthy streak of nymphomania. His Electra would be right at home on Jerry Springer.
But Sophocles--the exemplar of tragic poets in Aristotle's estimation--thrusts the modern viewer into a world as alien as anything George Lucas ever dreamed up. Bizarre prophecies govern the action in Oedipus the King: Oedipus will kill his father, marry his mother, and lose his kingdom, all thanks to his father's past indiscretion. Trying to enter this deterministic universe, where there's no getting around the oracle, can be like trying to fit into your favorite childhood sweater. His Antigone--in which the title character must defy Creon and bury her traitorous brother, Polyneices, as the gods decree--entails the belief that god-given edicts are inviolate and bring destruction upon those who defy them, an idea that seems outlandish in 20th-century America.
To bring Sophocles into the realm of relevance, Thirteenth Tribe begins with Nicholas Rudall's blunt, bare-bones translations of Oedipus the King and Antigone, performed back-to-back as a single story even though the plays were written many years apart. As he did in his translations of Euripides' Iphigenia plays for director JoAnne Akalaitis at the Court Theatre, Rudall eschews poetic adornment in favor of simple, declarative sentences. His text is as much paraphrase as translation--"Sophocles for Dummies," some might argue. But as Joanna Settle's staging reveals, Rudall's almost vernacular script allows modern actors to find some immediacy in ancient dramas.
Sustaining that immediacy is a constant struggle during this nearly three-hour production, as it would be for almost any cast staging two demanding plays in a single evening. Thirteenth Tribe's greatest strength is Mark Messing's sophisticated sound design (credited to his company, Maestro Matic), which undergirds this massive undertaking at every turn. Combining ambient hums, clicks, drones, and a variety of multilayered sonic washes, Messing has scored nearly every minute of the show. Yet his work never intrudes on the action, instead suggesting subtextual contours and providing a subtle counterpoint to even straightforward moments. He keeps us on our toes even if we've read the play dozens of times.
Settle does her best work with the chorus, that unwieldy flock of know-it-alls haunting both plays. Their gently stylized movements, reminiscent of Mary Zimmerman's semichoreographed ensemble work, include twitching uncomfortably, lounging haughtily, and gathering around a microphone as if they were children playing with a new toy. The chorus let their actions speak for themselves, keeping their acting to a minimum. Never characters, they're simply mouthpieces--an intelligent choice given their propensity to say just about anything to give a scene some extra texture.
The chorus is also a continuous audience for both plays. Whether acting as courtiers, advisers, or simple gossips, under Settle's direction they appear to scrutinize the lofty protagonists' every move, even breaking into applause now and again. It's an ingenious solution to the declamatory nature of Sophoclean drama; of course the protagonists are always giving speeches, because they're always on public display.
But when it comes to directing the lead actors, Settle comes up a bit short. With the exception of Maggie Doyle as Jokasta and Mark Reisman as the herdsman, Settle's actors play every emotion at face value, scampering up and down a set of ramps to no apparent end whenever they're upset, rarely working against the text's surface passions. And the emotion most often indulged, particularly in the cases of Oedipus and Antigone, is indignant self-pity. If either character achieves any heroic stature in Sophocles' conception, it's through the acceptance of their wretched fates. But here they're like spoiled adolescents, howling and convulsing right up to their final moments, refusing to bear up.
This emotional indulgence is simply out of place in Oedipus--after all, he's supposed to be a man of extraordinary intellectual abilities, none of which ever surface in this production. The same self-indulgence completely overwhelms Creon in Antigone, keeping the play from ever getting off the ground. Hegel called Sophocles' tragedy "a struggle between right and right": it represents the clash between Creon's duty to the state and Antigone's duty to her family. But while Antigone is merely a bit full of herself here, Creon (Mark Ulrich) is a paranoid lunatic, howling, squawking, and ranting from his first appearance. And since he's completely wrong and Antigone is absolutely right, the audience has no ethical struggle to work through for the play's 90 minutes.
Ultimately the lack of moral complexity means that Blood Line is merely interesting rather than engrossing: Settle's imaginative staging and innovative modern touches shed little light on the plays' central ethical paradoxes. But the production is vital and Settle's vision fresh, so a simple shifting of priorities might make her next encounter with the Greeks a real marvel.
The cast of TinFish's Electra has a similar problem with emotional indulgence. Euripides' play reunites two of Agamemnon's long-lost children, Electra and Orestes, who conspire to avenge their father's murder by murdering their mother, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus, who hacked Agamemnon to death in the bathtub the day he returned from the Trojan War. Orestes is driven to matricide by an oracle from Apollo, but Electra wants blood to satisfy her own perverse sense of fairness. It's a play in which contemptible people do contemptible things in the name of justice, leaving, in the words of one scholar, "no focus of sympathy...only a pervasive bad taste."
Director Dejan Avramovich sets the flame too high under this production, a problem that marred his Prometheus Bound (also part of the company's "Greek Fest") in January. Electra and Orestes express their grief--which by the time of the action is decades old--as though their father were murdered yesterday. Like Oedipus in Settle's production, neither character is given a chance to think, leading to a lot of unnecessary hysterics, with the actors blowing an emotional gasket in their first appearances onstage.
It seems Avramovich wants to turn Electra into a self-righteous social climber and Orestes into a swaggering frat boy. It's an intriguing concept in keeping with Euripides' ironic spirit, and it makes the play seem more contemporary. But the actors don't have the finesse to fill out the idea. It appears no one is quite clear on the story, and as a result the production lacks a genuine point of view.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Blood Line: the Oedipus/Antigone Story; Electra theater stills.