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Monday, June 28, 2004

Arts & Letters

Oedipus at Cambridge

The American Repertory Theatre (ART) has a habit of over-producing its plays, so it is a pleasure to report that in this presentation of one of Western civilization’s most compelling dramas, Robert Woodruff has pretty much let the text dictate the staging. Someone might ask how one can go wrong with Oedipus; the answer is, easily. Under Woodruff’s direction, the blood-chilling fright and horror engendered by a man who struggles to evade a fatal truth and then, as it becomes increasingly obvious, heroically forces himself to acknowledge it, is never absent. To keep that momentum going is not an easy feat, given the medium in which the director is working. The shape of ancient Athenian tragic drama, which was scrupulously maintained throughout the period of which we have knowledge, made dramatic tension difficult to sustain, or so it would seem from this distance. Intervals of dialogue that developed the inherent conflicts that produced the tragic situation were interspersed with or, perhaps better, interrupted by choral odes, in which twelve men danced and sang lyrics tied — sometimes obviously, sometimes less so — to the issues raised in the dialogue. We cannot know, at this remove, what came across to the ancient audience in these choral passages. Did the singing in unison muddle the perception of the words? Did the music drown them out? Did the dancing distract? While ancient Greek tragic choral lyrics can focus quite eloquently on the events at hand, they more often range from banal, obvious platitudes to poetic flights quite off the subject, leading one to imagine that the choral passages constitute a kind of definite break with the dramatic proceedings, sometimes as emotional relief perhaps and sometimes as transcendent commentary. How a director handles them is crucial to contemporary productions, as they are so alien to the audience’s theatrical experience. Indeed, the very relationship of the chorus to the actors in the dramatic situation, or to the audience to whom the chorus seems to speak, is problematic.

Woodruff’s chorus (which in this production is called “the ensemble”) of men and women playing male citizens of Thebes are ably led by Thomas Derrah, their principal spokesperson. Both Oedipus and his queen, Jocasta, interact in the most personal way with choral members, he stroking various ones, even kissing one woman, and the queen going so far as to sit down at the edge of the stage and put her arms around the shoulders of one of the chorus. It is an effective way to individualize and personalize what might otherwise be a monolithic, faceless voice-box, as well as to insist upon the choral ensemble’s fundamental relation to the drama’s principals. Having achieved this, Woodruff is free to shape the choral performance into a traditional, unified dance and song, with sometimes startling results. The dance movements in and of themselves are never illuminating; indeed, the patterning sometimes borders on the ridiculous, as when each chorus member takes a turn rolling over a small onstage altar, resembling participants in a gym awaiting their moment on an exercise machine (and exciting wonder in this viewer at the failure to imagine heat on the altar’s surface, considering that a simulated blue flame burns continuously just underneath).

The choral singing is excellent, the voices strong and clear. For the most part, the chorus sings the original Greek while an English translation is projected on a screen at the back; the superscription rather reminds one of contemporary grand opera, perhaps what is intended. The combination has the wonderful effect of achieving the obscurity of the original, as one might imagine it coming across in unified singing, muffled by dance and music, while the supertitles (which are incomplete and, in some ways, a distraction from the movements onstage) mimic what one might imagine were the snatches of meaning the original audience got from the choral lyrics. The play’s first great choral ode, which is a prayer to Oedipus and the gods for relief from the dreadful plague that infects Thebes, is deeply moving in this combination of song, Greek, and projected translation. No small part of this is the music, which at this point is excellent at conveying the townspeople’s desperation realized through deeply felt hymnal solemnity. In contrast, the last great ode, which expresses the essential hopelessness of human existence, is word-for-word as chilling as one gets in ancient theater; while one would therefore like it enunciated distinctly, that desire reflects the practice of the reader/scholar in his study and not the moment of theater to which Woodruff is being true. Unfortunately, however, too often the music was amplified to the distinctly unpleasant levels of a rock club, one of those little hints one often gets at the ART of an insecurity regarding the strength of the presentation. Or, then again, it might be the ART’s essential strategy to attract a younger audience to replace the increasing number of dead soldiers in its original cohort. In what seemed like another bow to the contemporary world — this time, multiculturalist chic — one choral passage was, in effect, a solo performance by a Balinese virtuoso, who rendered the Greek text in the style and tone of his country’s traditional music. Its relevance seemed dubious.

John Campion, as the beleaguered and doomed king, immediately took command of the stage and audience and never let up. Rarely have I seen an Oedipus so complicated, so human, so convincing: his slight accent, stocky body, and rough, aggressive manner, by turns menacing and sexy — punching persons with whom he was angry, caressing those he wished to draw into his power — masterfully conveyed the complications of an upstart, an arriviste, unsure yet cocky, determined and ambitious. One thinks of Berlusconi. Perhaps because of an English education, Campion seemed so at home with the Greek lines he was directed to speak that one could pretty well understand him. Sophocles sets up Creon, whose very name means “ruler,” as tragic drama’s symmetrical opposite to Oedipus: the man born to his position (rather than having to make his way to it). Creon is usually played as secure, in a way that Oedipus will always be insecure. Michael Potts’s Creon, however, is a man born to the purple but incapable or unwilling to use its power; the way Potts stood, his hand gestures, his tone, perfectly conveyed this. This Creon is a counterpart to Oedipus’ aggression and creativity more than anything else, which is important as, at the end of this drama, one is left with the heroic strength of Oedipus getting at a fatal truth, the kind of action in ancient Athens that always justified human existence in a meaningless world. The argument of words between Creon and Oedipus in this production degenerates into fisticuffs so violent that Jocasta’s physical intervention (in the text nothing more than words, the Greek equivalent of something like “Boys, boys, stop this and come into the house”) is initially unsuccessful, herself at risk of being struck. It is an interesting idea, this level of masculine aggression, but whether Creon’s aristocratic disdain could be so provoked is questionable, although it allows for an exploration of Jocasta’s feminine concern: sisterly, surely, wifely, yes — but, more menacing, motherly.

Stephanie Roth-Haberle, who has long been one of the ART’s great strengths, does not disappoint as Jocasta. What is more, after retiring as that character, she reappears as a messenger, delivering what is always one of the hardest hurdles of ancient theater: the long, not easily varied description of horrific events that the ancients preferred to have verbalized rather than enacted. Not only did she manage, by her stance and gesture, to look different from the queen she had just portrayed, but her manner of speaking made the long recital compelling and even fresh to this veteran of messenger speeches. As Jocasta, Roth-Haberle was extraordinarily commanding. Two physical details helped set her performance: the beautiful stiletto heels she wore were not exactly prostitute’s pumps, but they worked powerfully as sexual innuendo; and her hair, drawn up and back into a rigid arrangement, conveyed a woman tightly wound, immaculately controlled. The initial scenes, in which Oedipus begins to have nagging doubts and Jocasta is obviously well ahead of him along the road to comprehension, showed Roth-Haberle at her very best as her body gestures and the forced, scared, yet sexy smile revealed the extreme tension and frightening conflict of the moment. Aristotle claimed that great tragic drama raises pity and fear in the spectator. These scenes of an exceptionally powerful Oedipus, stumbling over his words and in his thinking, and answered by Jocasta’s forced, inane smile, evoked exactly these sentiments. Their outburst of joy, however, when the messenger announces Polybus’ death (which leads them to imagine Oedipus free from the suspicion of parricide) is a strange, over-the-top reaction: its colossal vulgarity, wild hilarity, twenty-first-century irony, and mocking language and gestures fit for television sitcoms, is entirely alien to the dignity and grandeur presumed, at least by this viewer, for an ancient Greek king and queen. It scarcely seemed in keeping with her character that Jocasta would lie on the ground, kicking her heels in the air and cackling with hysterical laughter. Reality theater is all well and good, but gestures such as these seemed to plumb depths in the characters that are simply not there.

Even more unfortunate was Jocasta’s last departure from the scene. The Greek text shows her ever more resistant to the idea of sending for the herdsman who will confirm whether Oedipus is the son of Laius. Oedipus insists, and Jocasta finally leaves, saying something like, “Oh, oh, you sad, sad wretched man, that is all I have to say now, and later there will be nothing else.” Those words tell it all: she knows the truth, and she hints that she will now take her life. Woodruff has Jocasta struggling on the ground in violent and crazy emotion, leaving the scene by crawling on all fours, her rear-end and her high-heeled shoes being the last items registered by the audience. One might argue that part of what excites pity and fear is regal composure — that the balance between animalism and intellect or spirit might be a difficult one, but when the former has the greater emphasis, the fall of the character is not so great a catastrophe. That notion, however, probably derives from an age before mass culture dictated the norm, and is no longer relevant to current audiences. Still, this was a very powerful Oedipus: an evening of strong emotion and a performance guaranteed to resonate in the minds of the audience for a long time.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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