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Review by Lisa Drostova for East Bay Express

An Oedipus to Root for
Shotgun stresses human will in its latest return to the Greek stage.

The Shotgun Players can't get enough of the ancient Greeks. Either they're doing the actual playwrights (Euripides' The Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis, and Medea, Homer's The Odyssey) or more modern interpretations of Greek stories (Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Giradoux's There Will Be No Trojan War). It seems that artistic director Patrick Dooley is ineluctably drawn to the big, poetic qualities of the Attic Theater, which it is visiting again with its current production of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. While the Shotgunners have made some different and sometimes daring choices in this relentless production, it seems ultimately truthful to Sophocles' intent -- a tragedy of human scale, an exploration of how human weakness can lead to disaster and despair.

The differences between classic Greek theater and modern theater are tremendous -- both in structure and in audience expectation. The first theatrical performance was the dithyramb, a ritual procession accompanied by music. A chorus would narrate a story that was already known to the audience, usually about heroes, kings, and gods.

Then a man named Thespis came up with the idea of having one performer who was separate from the chorus, and would interact with the chorus as a character or characters from within the story. The Athenians seized on this innovation, and Western theater as we know it was born. Soon Aeschylus (The Oresteia) was on the bandwagon -- he had two actors separate from the chorus, which meant the playwright could introduce twice as many discrete characters, forcing his actors to juggle masks. Sophocles, Aeschylus' protégé, went his mentor one better (literally) by adding a third actor. More actors, more masks, more characters.

But adding that third actor wasn't Sophocles' only contribution to world theater. He was interested in character development, was the first to use painted sets, and he used the chorus in an unusual way, making it more interactive and less omniscient. Sophocles -- who probably trained Euripides (the third of the great Greek playwrights) -- won more dramatic contests than any other Greek playwright, writing 123 plays during his long life. Most have been lost or survive only as fragments, but the ones that made it, especially the Oedipus cycle (Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus), have been profoundly influential.

Everyone knows about poor Oedipus, who unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother. Sigmund Freud saw to that with his Oedipal complex, the theory that all men secretly want to do away with dad. What Freud didn't mention was that Oedipus was doomed by his own intransigence. Or that the act of putting out his eyes and wandering around as a vagrant for twenty years would sanctify him, so he would eventually find salvation by protecting Athens with his holy presence (Oedipus at Colonus). That's another challenge of viewing ancient Greek theater in a modern context -- since we don't know the whole story and we're unlikely to see whole cycles at one go, we don't get the full effect. Although neither did Sophocles' contemporaries. Antigone, the events of which happen after Oedipus' death at Colonus, was written first, then Oedipus Rex, and finally Colonus. There's a 36-year span between the writing of Antigone and that of Colonus. But while Athenian audiences didn't necessarily see all three plays one after another in the proper order, they knew the story well enough to appreciate whichever part they were seeing as part of a greater whole.

Shotgun has done a lot of Greek work, and certain consistencies are becoming apparent. For one, its movement vocabulary is becoming codified. Although Kimberley Wilday's dignified, economical choreography for Oedipus is necessarily much smaller than Andrea Weber's was for Iphigenia, which was performed outdoors, it bears a strong resemblance to Shotgun's other Greek shows. That may be in keeping with what little scholars have uncovered of traditional dithyrambic movement.

Then there is the matter of having a few actors play a lot of roles. Six actors playing a whole cast wouldn't seem odd to Athenians at all, but it takes a little adjustment for audiences accustomed to actors getting one character each. The ancients used masks to set their characters apart; although Shotgun has done that in the past (to great effect with Iphigenia), they don't this time, and it's a bit confusing keeping everyone straight. Richard Louis James shows up the most times -- he's a suppliant, then a blind seer, then a shepherd. Fortunately, he has great vocal variety, or it would get tough remembering who he was from appearance to appearance.

Live music is another Shotgun Greek constant, and the choice here of Tim Barsky as a sound designer and performer is inspired. Barsky has been doing interesting work at the intersection of Jewish storytelling and hip-hop in his one-man shows. Here his haunting music and sound fit the story perfectly. Particularly effective are the mysterious susurrations and small musics that seem to come from everywhere, surrounding the audience. Meanwhile painter Scott Hove -- whose fiery mural graces the side of the old Crucible location on Ashby -- makes his East Bay theater design debut with a few carefully painted pieces (two walls, one floor) that indicate the plague-ridden towers of Thebes and the intersection of three roads where Oedipus unknowingly killed his father.

Clive Worsley is powerful as Oedipus, whose great strength and tragic flaw are one and the same -- self-confident enough to stand up to and beat the Sphinx, he's also slow to acknowledge the crime that damns him. The night I went his eventual breakdown didn't ring entirely true, but Worsley's understanding of his character is solid. He's well-matched by Bella Warda as a ripe and guilty Jocasta, who gets the clue long before Oedipus and tries vainly to prevent the story from coming to light.
One challenge for modern directors is how to handle the chorus. Locally, the chorus is often made up of three or four people (the Greeks used fifteen) who split up the lines, making the chorus members appear to be different characters. Occasionally they may speak as one, sing, chant, or dance. This time, the chorus is one person, Beth Donohue Templeton, with occasional backup from Richard Louis James (The Play About the Baby) and the stately, keening Casey Jones Bastiaans. True to Sophocles' inclination, she is more of an interactive character. Usually when a chorus breaks with the protagonist, it's not nearly so sad; Donohue makes the shift from "Oedipus is our hero and we will always stand by him" to "Oedipus is a taint that must be avoided" swift and wrenching.

That shift is also heartbreaking because what happens to Oedipus doesn't seem fair -- he's trying to do the right thing. The tragic thing about Oedipus is that although he may be a little pigheaded, paranoid, and quick to anger, he's basically a good guy who tries to behave honorably. Sophocles' take on fatalism, the idea that humans are beholden to destiny, was more personal than that of his contemporaries, who often drew their characters as puppets of the gods. In Sophocles' work, people are warned against a course of action; if they insist on following through, it's their own fault, not divine displeasure. So while in Aeschylus, for example, we see that the house of Atreus is pretty much doomed because the gods like it that way and we don't have much sympathy for Agamemnon and his brood, in Sophocles we're rooting for Oedipus (and later his daughters) because we see that they could make choices that might save them. For Sophocles, who may not have believed that the gods were all-powerful, there's room for improvement, a glimmer of hope that an individual can make a self-redemptive choice, a theme that radiates strongly from the Shotgun production. | originally published: March 12, 2003
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