At the start of Ellen McLaughlin’s new adaptation of “Oedipus Rex,” the chorus members rise from the audience and make their way to the stage. In sweaters and blazers, they’re at first indistinguishable from smartly dressed theater patrons. While this opening gambit underscores the play’s archetypal qualities — the chorus is, after all, us — it is also emblematic of a rather tepid, unadventurous staging. One reasonably expects a production of Sophocles to reach for a certain mythic grandeur. The Guthrie instead gives us Greek tragedy in business casual.
McLaughlin is known for her demotic, quasi-feminist reinventions of Euripides and Aeschylus. She brings an appealingly modern poetic sensibility to “Oedipus,” as well, teasing out contemporary-feeling questions of free will and intoxicating self-knowledge without losing the play’s shamanistic insistence on fate’s inexorability. In general, this “Oedipus” is less stylized, less a ritualized myth, than, say, Anthony Burgess’ famous translation.
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McLaughlin’s style might best be described as psychological realism. When, for instance, Jocasta tells of the loss of her child, she speaks of a scar “burned across my beating heart.” Later, the blind prophet Tiresias destroys Oedipus’ delusions of wisdom with a dazzling burst of poetic invective.
Aside from her rich, imagistic language, McLaughlin makes a few intriguing alterations to this most familiar of plays. She dispenses with the traditional prologue, for instance, keeping Oedipus himself tantalizingly in the wings while the chorus incants the play’s introduction. In addition, her Jocasta, played by Isabell Monk O’Connor, emerges as a surprisingly vivid and sympathetic character — a living rebuke, in fact, to the arrogant obsession with fate that entangles and finally dooms both her husbands.
McLaughlin also makes innovative use of the chorus. Rather than representing an embodied vox populi, the chorus seems to be a demographic cross-section of Thebes. At times, the members speak and move in unison; at others, an individual emerges to sing a strophe or antistrophe. (The beautifully-voiced Regina Marie Williams has a particularly memorable gospel-flavored solo). When, for instance, the chorus performs a roundelay dirge on the theme of mortality, the interplay of individual voices mimics a symphony orchestra; elsewhere, their drum-accompanied recitations feel like a Beatnik poetry session.
Yet McLaughlin’s adaptation is ill-served by a production that, while generally smooth and efficient, often seems strangely flavorless.
The Guthrie staging, directed by Lisa Peterson, is visually spartan to the point of being uninteresting. Aside from a pile of chairs in the background and a blank white scrim that catches an occasional play of shadows, the only thing onstage is a platform for two musical accompanists, a percussionist and a woodwind player.
“Oedipus” doesn’t necessarily demand a visually sumptuous staging, of course. But some suggestion of royal pomp in the mise-en-scene or costumes might go a long way in emphasizing the play’s political dimensions. As is, Oedipus seems more like the leader of a corporate focus group than monarch of a dying city.
Peter Macon’s performance as Oedipus also feels somewhat at odds with the poetic, emotionally evocative tone of McLaughlin’s writing. Macon has a powerful voice and royal swagger, yet he never really communicates the king’s roiling inner self. When, for instance, he questions the shepherd (Richard S. Iglewski, warm and idiosyncratic in a small part), Macon’s Oedipus seems less like an arrogant man trying desperately to delude himself than the dispassionate prosecutor in a TV courtroom drama.
In fact, the Guthrie’s production seems to treat “Oedipus” as a mystery story, a sort of ancient whodunit. That’s fine as far as it goes. But where’s the grandeur that comes with witnessing myth re-enacted? Where’s the timeless parable of pride brought low? Where, finally, is the sense of primal transgression at the play’s heart?
“Oedipus” should speak to us across the gulf of time and culture, stirring within us some of that ancient terror. It cannot bode well that the opening-night audience at the Guthrie responded to the play’s awful revelation not with revolted gasps but with tittering.