The Oedipus Cycle
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 23, 2008
Shepard Sobel's visionary staging of The Oedipus Cycle at The Pearl Theatre Company provides contemporary theatergoers with as close an approximation of what it might have been like to be in the audience of one of the drama festivals of ancient Greece as I can imagine. His secret weapon is not authenticity: there are no masks here, nor other trappings of classical Greek theatre; and the play cycle has been stitched together, with significant pruning, from three dramas from three different tetralogies, re-ordered to tell the story of Oedipus and his family chronologically (the dramas are Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone).
No, the special ingredient is engagement. From the outset, Sobel insists that his players remind the audience that they are actors, and so we watch them add and remove costume pieces to their relatively timeless white ensembles as they assume this or that character. The effect is to put us at a remove from the stories they are enacting, and that remove makes us aware that what we're witnessing is a primitive ancestor to drama as we understand it today. The Oedipus Cycle more properly is a rite; a communal experience of something fundamental in our human existence, an essential explanation of why we come together in an arena, or theatre, and allow a few of our gifted cohorts to tell us powerful tales of gods, men, and destiny. The awe-inspiring light that these plays shone in a dark world that we can barely fathom is what Sobel shows us in this remarkable evening. He, as Sophocles did millennia ago, summons us to share with friends and strangers the human struggle in its most raw and unfettered form.
You know the stories: Oedipus, following in the footsteps of his mother and father, tries to outwit Fate but ends up killing his father and marrying his mother; disgraced, he puts out his eyes and exiles himself from his kingdom of Thebes. Years later, he arrives at Colonus, a sacred place in Athens, where he offers himself as protector to the city while cursing his sons Eteocles and Polynices, who are locked in a battle for control over their inheritance. As Oedipus foretells, the two princes kill each other simultaneously, and in the final play their sister Antigone risks death to bury Polynices in defiance of her uncle Creon. (A more detailed account of the myth is here.)
What plays out on stage, though, is a cycle of great men and women flouting their destinies (sometimes ordained by gods, other times by men) while oracles divine and choruses of ordinary folk alternately watch awestruck and throw up their hands hoping somebody will do something to fix the massive messes that the great ones' destinies always seem to create. Indeed, the contrast between the heroes and villains who move the earth and the common men and women trying simply to survive is the great constant in these plays. Some things never change.
The Oedipus Cycle features very speakable and hearable new translations of Sophocles' plays by Peter Constantine. Harry Feiner's unit set—a platform framed by a dozen stands of wood that double as columns and trees—provides the perfect timeless environment for the piece. Stephen Petrilli's lighting is splendidly evocative, and Devon Painter's costumes, as I've already mentioned, bridge the gap between then and now quite brilliantly.
Six main actors play all the roles in the cycle, and their work is commendable. Dominic Cuskern gives us a solid Tiresias, while T.J. Edwards is a commanding older Oedipus in the Colonus play; both of these men also lead the chorus throughout the show. Jay Stratton gets the hubris and the heartbreak just right as Oedipus in the first play, and John Livingstone Rolle shows us Creon's transformation from behind-the-scenes player to formidable tyrant as the cycle proceeds. Jolly Abraham is excellent as Antigone and as her mother Jocasta and her aunt Eurydice. Susan Heyward plays Ismene but really excels as Polynices in Colonus. Two other actors, Jack Moran and Joel Richards, complete the chorus.
The Oedipus Cycle doesn't look for empathy from its audience; its demand is actually greater, to completely surrender to its power and to experience it not as a sophisticated theatergoer but as a wholly immersed witness. Theatre seldom asks this of us nowadays; one of the things that I think Sobel is exploring here is whether or not that's a good thing. See this remarkable show, let it cast its unusual spell, and decide for yourself.