Oedipus at Colonus
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 12, 2008
Oedipus at Colonus is one of the Greek classics that is seldom produced (the last NYC mounting I can find in my research was in 1995 at the Pearl Theatre Company). So right away, Handcart Ensemble's new production of this inspiring but very unusual work by Sophocles is noteworthy; add to that the fact that this is the New York premiere of a recently commissioned translation created by classicist Rachel Kitzinger and poet Eamon Grennan, and it's clear that this is a theatrical event that students of Greek drama in particular will want to attend. It's another feather in Handcart's cap as the city's most reliable and interesting presenter of contemporary renditions of classic theatre texts.
This show also marks the return to the New York stage of director Karen Lordi-Kirkham, who has not had a production here since her excellent Dance of Death at Jean Cocteau Rep six years ago. About that revival, I wrote in my review that Lordi-Kirkham made "this nearly 100-year-old play at once immediate and eternal." I echo that now about the more than 2,000-year-old Oedipus at Colonus. Her realization of this ancient drama makes it feel at once like an old's man melancholy meditation on the nature of existence and an almost religious ceremony or ritual that teaches us his precepts for living.
The story of this remarkable play follows the events of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex by many years. The old Theban king, now devastated by his discovery that he killed his father and married his mother, has been wandering the Greek isles in exile with his devoted daughter Antigone. They arrive at this place, Colonus (near Athens), and the old man instinctively knows that this will be the end of his road: he will die here, and laid to rest. But before he goes, he needs to impart some final wisdom to the king of this city, Theseus; and the next act of his own family's drama—involving the battle between his two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, for control of Thebes—must play out. (Oedipus curses both of his sons for going to war with one another, and the effects of that curse will lead directly to events depicted in Aescyhlus's Seven Against Thebes and Sophocles's own very famous Antigone.)
The father's curse notwithstanding, the overriding theme of Oedipus at Colonus is forgiveness—the notion that, in the final analysis, whatever the workings of gods or men, to live simply and peaceably and companionably with the universe is the ideal that humanity should strive toward. Lordi-Kirkham emphasizes this with subtle Eastern-inflected elements throughout her staging, from Tjana Bjelajac's gorgeous asymmetrical set that depicts the entryway of a temple, to the stylized movements of the three-member chorus that are reminiscent of both Hindu and Zen Buddhist rituals and accompanied by Robert Pound's stirring, minimalist score.
The chorus, it must be stated, does exceptional work here: Susanna Florence, Allison Schubert, and Sarah Shahinian perform the poetry, songs, and dances fluently and beautifully, and Ralph Petrarca as the Chorus Leader, who plays accompaniment to many of the songs on a single drum and other types of percussion, compliments them eloquently. Six other actors plus Petrarca play the non-choral roles, with Peter Judd in the marathon title role (he never leaves the stage for the entire piece). Particularly strong among the ensemble are Nicholas Moran, very compelling as Polyneices in a stirring monologue about a kind of heroism that makes sense to men who choose to plunge headlong into certain defeat in the name of honor, and Emily Rogge as a passionately devoted Antigone—it's easy to see how her character will grow into the central figure in the play that bears her name (and it would be interesting to see Rogge take that role on).
The translation by Grennan and Kitzinger is very accessible to the contemporary ear. Kudos to them for their dedication to creating it (I got to attend a talkback session with them on opening night, and the process they described seemed impressively meticulous and arduous), and also to J. Scott Reynolds, Handcart's artistic director, for bringing this new Oedipus to Colonus to the stage. It's of immense value to be able to experience the play so clearly and rivetingly in Lordi-Kirkham's production, and those who know the play—and more importantly, those who do not—should take advantage of this opportunity to discover or rediscover this classical treasure.