At the Guthrie, where a play can generally ensure itself a standing ovation just by starting on time, it is rarely a good sign when the audience remains seat-bound as the house lights come up. In the worst cases, it means that generous Midwestern hindquarters have been lulled to sleep. Such, unfortunately, was the case after the premier of former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove’s “The Darker Face of the Earth,” now being produced by the Guthrie and St. Paul’s Penumbra Theater.
Since its 1996 premier at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Dove’s retelling of “Oedipus Rex” in the antebellum South has been widely regarded as an interesting if deeply flawed and overlong debut playwrighting effort. There was nevertheless reason for hope that this latest production, directed by Penumbra’s Lou Bellamy and featuring an ensemble cast of the esteemed African-American theater’s best and brightest, might be the one to refine Dove’s dramaturgy. Alas , “Darker Face” remains a protean muddle of good intentions and overleaping ambition.
Eschewing Sophocles’s in media res prologue, Dove begins her myth cycle with the birth of a baby boy to the Jocasta stand-in, a plantation owner’s wife named Amalia (Karen Landry). When Amalia’s philandering husband (Stephen Pelinski) discovers that his progeny is not, in fact, his own, he plots to kill the child with a riding spur. A crowd of slaves, meanwhile, whispers and sways in the shadows outside, evocatively presaging the curse which the miscegenation will bring on the big house. And indeed, when the child returns 20 years later, now an educated and defiant slave named (a bit too neatly) Augustus Newcastle (Lester Purry), he and Amalia waste no time in posting to incestuous sheets.
Given that everyone in the theater except the protagonists knows how the story turns out, it is reasonable to expect something other than a naturalist treatment. In Bellamy’s production, the slaves act as a dithyrambic chorus, underscoring the inexorability of the impending tragedy with spiritual-inflected song. Oddly, however, much of the ritualistic mis-en-scene from Ricardo Khan’s 1997 Crossroads Theater staging of the play, including a masked dancer and an onstage drum ensemble, is missing — and sorely missed — here. Strengthening the allusions to classical form might provide context for Marlies Yearby’s stylized choreography and Douglas Stein’s set, which is part dusky mangrove swamp and part industrial warehouse. As is, this new staging seems cobbled together from provocative if disparate ideas. What is lacking, more than anything, is a unifying ethos to ground Dove’s parable.
Dove does not help the cause of clarity, either, by adding a host of superfluous and underdeveloped characters to what is already a crowded play. Augustus’s father, a swamp-dwelling madman played by Abdul Salaam El Razzac, appears only to fall victim to a nearly random patricide. An onstage raisonneur, Scylla (Laurie Carlos), makes frequent prophetic pronouncements, and is summarily ignored. Meanwhile, Dove inserts a subplot about a slave insurrection that simply doesn’t belong — despite the fact that Augustus’s recount of a similar rebellion in Haiti to the gathered slaves is one of the best and truest moments of the play. Lester Purry, always a magnetic force onstage, here burns with a barely contained fury, illuminating Dove’s dense prose but also revealing the characters around his for the lifeless figurants that they are. Even Purry cannot save a denouement, though, in which the purportedly cathartic murder of the father and the suicide of the mother seem mere afterthoughts to political blustering.
Familiar as it is, “Oedipus Rex” is also the primal domestic drama. Its intimacy, in other words, is also its universality. In “Darker Face,” Dove’s purpose seems to be to draw a connection between institutionalized oppression and the Greek concept of fate, both of which doom all involved to a cycle of violence and retribution. Ambitious, certainly, but this may also be that rare case in which the Oedipus myth would benefit from being a bit less complex.