Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Oedipus the King at Classical Greek Theatre Festival

Oedipus the King, produced by The Classical Greek Theatre Festival (Westminster College, Salt Lake City); performed Saturday 14 September, O.C. Tanner Theatre, Springdale, UT.

Circumstances found my wife and me in Southern Utah on Saturday morning, unable to see the annual CGTF production in any other scheduled performance but free to arrange for a visit to Springdale and the magnificent venue of the O.C. Tanner amphitheatre. As the morning unfolded, we found ourselves wondering why in the future we would ever choose to see a CGTF production in any
Classical Greek Theatre Festival 2013 
location but here. So marvelous — and marvelously used — was this venue.

Oedipus the King stands, in its 2013 CGTF manifestation, as a straightforward and accessible interpretation of the venerable Sophoclean mainstay. Staging, costuming, message are classical. Sandra Shotwell eschews devices that other directors sometimes employ to “update” the ancient text or make it speak to some overtly modern context. Credibility accrues, rather, as the Prof. Shotwell lets this mighty tragedy speak for itself 
 A lovely moment of exquisite staging, which will not be replicated in any other performance of the CGTF OT has Oedipus turn his back on the audience and shouts his genealogy into the soaring red rocks beyond stage. When the mantic void echoes his ancestors’ names back, the effect is poignant. The lines in question are 265 – 70:
“I fight in [Laius’] defence as for my father
and I shall try all means to take the murderer
of Laius the son of Labdacus
the son of Polydorus and before him
of Cadmus and before him of Agenor.
Those who do not obey me, may the Gods
grant no crops spring from the ground they plough nor children to their women!”
                      (David Grene, trans.) 
The intellectual impulse in Oedipus drives him toward assumption of the legitimate right to act in behalf of the murdered king. We know, if we care to explore the bloodlines of the Labdacids, that Oedipus is in very fact a direct descendant of Agenor. At line 268 of this play, the Sophoclean Oedipus is some thousand lines from full awareness. Inasmuch as Oedipus does not yet perceive that Agenor’s lineage is yet viable, this pledge to bring its exterminator to justice resonates irony. No response rises from the stage; it echoes, rather, back upon Oedipus from the majestic red cliffs that soar a thousand feet above the Tanner stage. The theatricality is magical.

Pity that spectators who view this production in a modern theatre, or even at others outdoor venues, will miss the spectacular device availed by the Virgin River’s handiwork in Zion Canyon. The morning sun’s rising over the Springdale audience’s right shoulders provides the actors with a focal point for addressing Apollo on a handful of occasions during the play. This is a turn-around from the gorgeous Red Butte Gardens stage, where the morning sun rises in the spectators’ eyes leaving the actors look into a publicum that is either blinded or holding their hands in front of their faces. One gathers that the Tanner open-air venue may perhaps be among the very best situated stages for any production of a Greek tragic play.

The CGTF OT achieves a definitive success through minimalist adherence to the Sophoclean text. Marianne McDonald’s English translation drives the play. In spite of some overtly awkward acting from some actors, the play works. Because Oedipus’ agones against Tiresias and against Creon preciptate so immediately into shouting matches — more quickly, I feel, than the textual script actually warrants — I came away with the feeling that the actors were directed into an interpretive oversimplification. True, Oedipus’ character did manifest rash outrage that fateful day at the junction when Laius went down. So, maybe the King ought to shout down his interlocutor at every first sign of resistance. Diminished nuance in this aspect of the director’s choices put me off. Only in one late flashing moment does this Oedipus exhibit that intellectual heroism Sophocles wanted Oedipus to possess. When examining the shepherd, Oedipus presses toward revelation that will illuminate the extent of his hamartia.

Jocasta plays her part, particularly when downstage, with gut wrenching intensity. Sophocles’ brilliant plot structure is adequately matched by this Jocasta’s response to the revelations and her anticipation of what is coming next. If you consider the human inclination to circumvent fate to be this play’s chief caution, you will appreciate the roll and performance of this lead character especially rewarding. The off-stage scream was unnecessary; for, on-stage the actress showed the turmoil crush the queen.

Costuming bows to the archaic. Each chorus member is robbed in earth-toned sackcloth and each leans upon a crook, which is used as a percussive tool from eisodos right through the entire play. There are no masks. When a new character is required by the text, a chorus member changes costume subtly and emerges to stand opposite Oedipus. Before the play has ended, each on of these players has taken a shot at Oedipus’ blind preference for human intellect over blind belief in mantike. The director’s clever circulation of faces deftly implicates the chorus in the disclosure of the play’s action while economizing the production’s cost. Stage properties are minimalist. The oboeist’s upholstered chair and a meagerly stylized skene are the only fixtures on the stage. The doorframe’s rhomboid geometry suggests that the entrances and exits from the House of Labdacus can never be squared with outright propriety.

The decision to include a gifted auletes — well, obeist — in the company is a major plus. CGTF productions have rarely, if ever, been so well endowed with such lovely musical accompaniment. The effect is unobtrusively essential. That feeling one often perceives in less subtle productions, some atonal accompaniment articulating the on-stage proceeding or other, is neither pursued nor inflicted upon this elegant production. One comes away from this production wishing that all Greek tragic performances could accomplish this production’s musical grace. The choral odes are chanted by a well rehearsed troupe, to be sure. The rhythmic effect of McDonald’s translation is less lyric, though, and will certainly seem “other” to most in the audience.

In all, again, the 2013 production of the CGTF Oedipus the King is well worth the ticket price. A pre-play lecture by the affable Professor James Svendsen really adds to the value. Now as adjunct professor at Westminster College after his distinguished career at the University of Utah, Prof. Svendsen continues as dramaturge for the CGTF and seems fit for another full run through the Greek tragic canon.

Looking forward with unaccustomed anticipation to 2014.

—  RTM


No comments:

Post a Comment