“Oedipus Rex” it isn’t — “Oedipus” wrecked is more like it. The promising presence of Oscar winner Frances McDormand and talented up-and-comer Billy Crudup turn out to be mere bait for one of the more torturous theatrical traps in memory: This new spin on the legendary Greek tale is a four-hour-long orgy of self-indulgence on the part of author and director Dare Clubb, bad theater of a kind that holds no ancillary rewards — no cheesy sets to invite titters, no histrionic excesses to relish, just endless torrents of fake profundity and muddled monologuing, delivered with no small amount of dedication by a cast of sincere actors. Too sincere, really. It’s not unfair to blame the messenger here: “Oedipus” is a production of the Blue Light Theater Co., a thesp-led troupe, and one is ultimately left wondering not at the cruelty of the gods but at the cruelty of actors.
Clubb chooses to begin his rendering of the legend well before Sophocles took up the action. As this version begins, Merope (McDormand), who raised Oedipus (Crudup) after he was abandoned by his birth parents (they naturally hoped to avoid a certain prophecy involving parricide, you’ll recall), is in a fever of sexual desire for her adopted son. In floridly awkward bursts of speech (“Is it his intention to inflict this torment of uncertainty that’s eating me?”), delivered as she stalks the stage as if it’s paved in burning coals, the unhinged Merope laments her dilemma: She’s raised Oedipus to think she’s his mother, making it a trifle hard to get him into bed.
And yet there’s hope! When Oedipus returns after a mysterious absence, it turns out he’s been consulting the oracle at Delphi and been informed that it’s his fate to murder his dad and marry mom. He’s understandably unnerved by this, but Merope quickly counsels him to submit to the decrees of the all-powerful gods. Presto! The gullible boy stalks offstage to greet dad, and gets the doom ball rolling by doing him in.
But there’s no pleasing some people. Although Merope scarcely bats an eyelash at the murder of her husband and is ready to flee with Oedipus to a place where they can live in pseudo-incestuous happiness, she’s not about to stand between Oedipus and his fate: “I can’t marry you; I’m not your mother,” she tells him when he nobly presses for her hand.
And so while the Oedipus of legend had sought desperately to escape his terrible fate, Clubb’s Oedipus seeks with poker-faced determination to embrace it, dumping Merope to go in search of his real parents, so he can murder dad and marry mom and get the whole thing over with.
In human terms, this is of course all nonsense, and things get more nonsensical as the evening wears on. (And on, and on, and on; the small audience had noticeably thinned by act three.) Human drama doesn’t really interest Clubb; his aims are of a higher, more philosophical order, and the play contains much high-flown rhetoric and long dialectical discussions about fate, the gods, sex, love and family. A few dialogue samples: “Where do our feelings come from? What dry and windless plain?” “My thoughts pass through me as if I’m not here,” “The gods are powerful, but they’re not inhuman” (how’s that?), “The deepest reality of any fate is that it’s already happened.”
Clubb is a writer who will not use a dozen words when a couple hundred can be deployed, one image when he can use three. And the levels of inanity this play reaches are sometimes astonishing. How, for example, can Oedipus in the second act fall in with his own sons, Eteocles and Polycides, when he hasn’t yet met their mother?
McDormand’s intensity in the first act is strangely riveting, given the prolixity of the dialogue she has to deliver, but she’s largely absent for the rest of the evening, save for a brief appearance as a pregnant sphinx. Crudup is likewise obviously committed to the material, but after a while you’re tempted to stop listening to what he’s saying and instead concentrate on observing the way his hair manages to remain so artfully and sexily unkempt.
Narelle Sissons’ elegant, minimalist set and Christopher J. Landy’s stark and moody lighting should be serving something better, as indeed should the generally able cast, who could be praised for their endurance if their endurance didn’t require such indulgence on the part of the audience. “In this one day I’ve aged a lifetime,” mourns Crudup’s Oedipus toward the end. You and me both, buddy.