Bold and intellectually stimulating, but also overly literal and dramatically languid, Frank Galati’s “Oedipus Complex” adapts the famed Sophoclean tragedy by inserting Dr. Freud throughout the story, with the psychologist offering interpretation of the work’s significance as well as personal memories related to it. While ripe with ideas ranging from what theater means to the depths of human denial, this show flirts with theatrical power, but too rarely emerges from its purposefully clinical approach to deliver it. It’s “Oedipus,” anesthetized.
Galati (“The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Pirate Queen”) is not known for his classical work, and he readily admits in interviews to having been uncertain about how to approach “Oedipus,” unable to imagine the curtain opening to a bunch of guys in togas.
First produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2004 and now re-imagined at the Goodman in Chicago, Galati’s take views the play through the famous psychoanalyst’s perspective, beginning with Freud (Nick Sandys) delivering a lecture on the roots of neuroses in a child’s feelings toward his parents — what will come to be called the Oedipus complex. The Sophocles play then begins, with the bearded, black-clad audience members of the lecture becoming the Greek chorus, and Freud continuing to comment sporadically throughout.
While the tragedy is played out in its entirety and we only get a little bit of Freud, “Oedipus Complex” is most interesting in how it views Freud as a character — he examines the play and himself with a passion that’s coolly objective yet also intense.
On occasion, Freud’s musings and the playing fuse into something both meaningful and emotional. Eyes and seeing become a combined theme, with Freud recounting a dream he had of being asked to close the eyes of his father’s corpse, pondering the import of such a gesture. What does it mean to close one’s eyes? “There’s something I’m hiding from myself,” he says. Then Oedipus returns to the stage to play out the rest of his fate, blind to himself.
The problem is that the Freudian additions add thematically to “Oedipus” but subtract power from the underlying work. Sophocles’ “Oedipus” remains the central event, but too much of Galati’s approach to it feels icy cold, putting Oedipus (Ben Viccellio) under the microscope with scientific emotional detachment.
The pacing is deliberate, and vocally, Viccellio seems almost purposefully monotone. The chorus, made up of some superb Chicago actors, is expertly syncopated but never really integrated; in essence, the political elements of this play must be sacrificed to psychological interpretation. Galati goes so far as to take the Oedipus story out of the public square, to an interior palace space of expansive black emptiness, designed strikingly by James Schuette. It has big chandeliers and a black chaise lounge — sit down, Mr. Oedipus, and tell me your troubles.
While this space represents in part the interior mind as Oedipus digs deeper into his past in pursuit of truth (psychoanalyzing himself), lighting designer Michael Chybowski alternates between the bright light of consciousness and the darkness of the hidden. It’s lovely, but also self-conscious and labored.
The straightforward rationalism of “Oedipus” within this context seems odd. Freud viewed the play as an expression of collective unconscious, its power speaking to the deepest, least rational parts of our beings. But this show turns classical tragedy into a mixture of psychological case study and drawing room drama. It prompts one to imagine what Robert Wilson or Galati’s fellow Goodman associate Mary Zimmerman might have done with this idea, as artists who tend to view the stage as a place of public dreaming.
This “Oedipus” is indeed complex, cerebral and very interesting. But it’s too fundamentally academic in its forcefulness.