Review by Michael Scott Moore for SF Weekly
A Chorus Fine
But the rest of Oedipus proves a little too complex for the Shotgun Players
The nice thing about the Shotgun Players' new production of Oedipus Rex is that nobody wears a toga. I hate Greek tragedies with too many people in togas; they remind me of the marble statues that stand around like frozen armies in certain rooms of museums. Those statues used to be painted in color, thousands of years ago, just as the plays that survive in bare Greek verse used to be draped in music, rhythm, and dancing. In Patrick Dooley's new production there are brightly colored robes (not togas), a reddish Hellenic symbol painted on the floor, a motif of thistles, and original, haunting music by Tim Barsky. The "style" of the show, in other words, is lively and bright. The Shotgun Players want to make the classical Oedipus accessible to Berkeley audiences.
The only problem is that some of the acting feels bleached and drab. Dooley's stroke of brilliance here is to cast Beth Donohue Templeton (formerly Beth Donohue) as Chorus Leader. Donohue shivered the timbers of the old UC Theatre last year as Medea, and she's good enough to play Jocasta, the woman you might call Oedipus' Queen Mum. But here she is in a supporting role. She wears white rags, with a tattered scarf around her head, and leads the ragged chorus in prayers of lamentation. She also gives two of the most compelling speeches in the play. The chorus leader, it turns out, has more important things to say than does Jocasta, who mainly needs to stand around looking regal and worried.
In most productions of Greek tragedy -- including Shotgun's otherwise powerful Bacchae -- the chorus gets short shrift. Its parts might be well choreographed and pretty, but the acting is lukewarm and the choral passages just work as transitions. Here, the choral scenes have a flowing, integrated beauty, thanks to Donohue Templeton's acting as well as Barsky's live score. The two performers respond to each other. Barsky stands in a loft behind the audience, playing hand drums and a breathy flute; he seems to mix composed leitmotifs with raw improvisation. Donohue Templeton sings or speaks to his rhythm, but almost subconsciously, without forgetting to engage the audience. Kimberly Wilday's choreography also works well -- it's graceful but unobtrusive -- and the chorus' music and chanting, by the end, make up the core of the show.
The trouble with this focus on style is that Oedipus has so much substance, and the acting in all three lead roles is flat. Bella Warda as Jocasta and Roham Shaikhani as Creon both play in a stiff classical manner that makes them resemble figures on an urn. Clive Worsley, who was so fierce and alive last summer as Thersites in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, is a nearly anonymous Oedipus. At first he delivers his speeches in a balanced, even tone that approximates that of a statesman but lacks personality, which is maybe not such a crime. You could argue that Oedipus himself, before learning the secret of his past, should lack personality, and Worsley could do worse than resemble a pre-Civil War Lincoln (as he does, with his bright young eyes and thickening beard). But his follow-through is weak. When the old goatherd reveals to Oedipus and his gathered citizens that the king of Thebes is really the abandoned son of his queen, Worsley wills his shame and grief, and the climax feels manufactured, instead of cathartic.
That's a shame, because the rest of the show is solid. Dooley arranges the seats in a triangle around the colorful Hellenic symbol on the floor, and his actors address the spectators as if they're a bunch of Thebans assembled in the city square. The mystery leading to Oedipus' undoing is "Who killed Laius?" -- the former king -- and Dooley makes sure his audience understands each detail of the back story. Casey Jones Bastiaans opens the show with an eloquent song as the priestess, and Richard Louis James plays a powerful Teiresias, the blind seer, trembling in a ragged robe and rapping his cane on the ground. "Though he wear purple," he prophesies, "[the king] will don a beggar's rags, like a blind man he will tap the earth with his staff." (Nicholas Rudall's newish American translation works just fine.) James' voice is crowlike and broken, but he can rage like a storm, and later he appears -- completely changed -- as the goatherd, a wheezy, sniveling old man who would rather not tell Oedipus the truth.
Worsley might improve during the run; he's a good actor. The ambition to put on a classical play that avoids both togas and clever modern costumes is also respectable. Still, strong performances in secondary roles don't quite make the show, and on opening night this Oedipus was all bright color and not enough marble.
sfweekly.com | originally published: March 12, 2003
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