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Oedipus Rex

With all the hubris flying around Washington these days, it's refreshing to be reminded by the prescient folks who invented the term that there's always cosmic retribution waiting for those who mistake their temporal power for godliness. Just what the instrinsic powers of the universe have in mind for the Bush-Cheney crime family remains to be seen, but if the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Sophocles' tragic masterpiece, Oedipus Rex is any indication, all the shock troops, secret bunkers, and shadow government contigency plans will be useless against such karmic forces.

Such is the power of this 2500-year-old play that it can still rent asunder our complacency with its flawless construction and, in DCTC's case, flawless execution. Drawing elements from classic Greece and Tyrone Guthrie's famous film version, director Anthony Powell sets his simply clad, masked players in front of massive stone wall broken only by a set of towering doors that open to the king's chambers. A half-dozen strides in front of this imposing fasçade, and down a couple steps, is the main plaza in front of the palace, where the citizenry and the chorus gather. The only other props, other than what the actors carry, are a few items on an altar to the Oracle located downstage left.

After some ominous thunder, echoed in an undercurrent of drums, the imposing Bill Christ, a full head taller than almost everyone else, enters as Oedipus. With a regal air and a voice born for this role, Christ lends Oedipus a power worthy of the heroics attributed to the great king, including his saving of Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx.

Now Thebes faces a new challenge—a plague brought on by the murder of the previous king, Laius—and Oedipus is importuned by his subjects to rid them of this scourge. In the process of unraveling this mystery, Oedipus comes face-to-face with his greatest challenge: his own fate.

As the shocking truth of his life gradually reveals itself to Oedipus, he is, at first, suspicious of those closest to him: Creon, his brother-in-law; Tiresias, the prophet and servant to the god Apollo; and Jocasta, his wife. Later, with his own façade in ruins, he must admit to the truth of their accusations.

Photo of John Hutton as Creon
John Hutton as Creon
Photo: Terry Shapiro
In rehearsing for this production, Powell and his cast and crew spent extra time studying (with coach Craig Turner) the use of masks, and it shows, particularly with the principal actors. Masks necessarily place greater emphasis on the spoken word and body language, stripping the characters of the clichés of appearance and replacing these superficial idiocyncracies with archetypes. Sophocles' intricate and masterfully constructed argument was written with this in mind, as is apparent from watching the deep talent of this company generally deliver the power of such techniques. Kevin Copenhaver's mask designs, though rooted in the actors' facial structures, are then distorted to creatively interpret each character's defining traits. Just as in Tantalus, however, these masks fail to solve the age-old question of how the Greeks used them to project; instead, they occasionally interfere with the voice work and cause some visual distortions around the mouth as well.

Photo of Annette Helde as Jocasta
Annette Helde as Jocasta
Photo: Terry Shapiro
But these are minor distractions. In addition to Christ's exemplary vocal and physical presence, there are a number of other stirring performances: Jamie Horton, as Tiresias, eloquently conjures the authority of Apollo's messenger, while defying death by challenging the king and accusing him of murder and incest; John Hutton, as Creon, contributes his own rich oratorical treatment as he bitterly, and with consummate persuasiveness, deflects Oedipus' conspiratorial accusations; Annette Helde, as Jocasta, holds bravely to a measured and steady rationale of events, until the awful truth sends her into a wailing abyss; and Robin Moseley, as the Leader of the Chorus, ignites lyrical commentaries and haunting melodies that spread like wildfire throughout the rest of the Chorus.

Indeed, in Powell's most impressive contribution to the Greek/Guthrie tradition, the dynamics of the Chorus are enhanced through technological innovations—periodic modulations, echoes, and amplifications—magnifying the quality and range of the stirring voices, making this the most effective and haunting chorus in memory. Music and sound designers Gary Grundei and Craid Breitenbach rate the highest accolades.

Then there is the genius of Sophicles. Consider that in this play, which wears the mantle of the granddaddy of all tragedies, the hero does not die: His fate is more painful, for he must live with his shame. That, of course, is what cements Oedipus' greatness—his resolve in facing the daily ignominity of his fate.

Also, remarkably, as Oedipus' fate becomes apparent the dramatic tension is maintained for a remarkably extended period, considering that everyone in the house knows what is going to happen, until Oedipus does what he must to save the city and destroy himself. This is perhaps the finest extant example of tribal/paleolithic ritual in theatre.

Finally, what would a discussion of Oedipus be without the obligatory reference to Sigmund Freud's use of this story to explain the complex relationship between male children and their parents. As if the father of psychoanalysis were providing an illustration for his work Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, the audience can't help but titter when Jocasta says, "Have no more fear of sleeping with your mother/How many men, in dreams, have lain with their mothers!/No reasonable man is troubled by these things."

And that is Freud's point, that such subconciously imbedded desires (include the Electra complex as well) are a natural part of the differentiation which fascilitates the transformation from juvenile to young adult. One could no more avoid such feelings (however ignorant we may be of them) than Oedipus could avoid his fate.

So, what is Sophocles saying about free will? Is it an illusion, or does it coexist with determinism? Certainly in this tragic hero's case, the will of the gods and his fate coincide. And as in Macbeth, the awareness of the gods' intent in Oedipus Rex contributes to the fulfillment of the prophesy. But one could argue that it is Oedipus' hubris (or perhaps Freud would term it unbridled Ego) that seals the result. If this is true, then the moral here points toward an evolutionary solution, for it was Oedipus' anger that led to his slaying of his father and, in turn, the opportunity to marry his mother. This message could not be more relevant for our present circumstances: ruled by our instincts and ego, we seek ever greater riches to outdo our father (G-d), thereby profaning our mother (Earth). The beauty of this production is the clarity with which Powell, his actors, and his craftspeople have amplified Sophocles' message.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Oedipus Rex runs through February 26th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows

 

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