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The Oedipus Cycle

It should be catnip for theater buffs to experience so much Sophocles at once, savoring the overlapping themes and actions in his work, but no amount of academic interest can overcome the lifelessness of this production.

With:
With: Jay Stratton, Dominic Cuskern, John Livingston Rolle, Jolly Abraham, Susan Heyward, Jack Moran, Joel Richards, T.J. Edwards

The Pearl Theater Company sets itself an admirable challenge with “The Oedipus Cycle,” staging world-premiere translations of “Oedipus the King,” “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone” in a single three-hour stretch. It should be catnip for theater buffs to experience so much Sophocles at once, savoring the overlapping themes and actions in his work, but no amount of academic interest can overcome the lifelessness of this production.

Blood is drained by Peter Constantine’s translation. His syntax is so tortured, and his word choice so needlessly formal that the simplest statements become confusing. It’s so much work just to make sense of the speeches that a deeper, emotional involvement is almost impossible.

And Pearl a.d. Shepard Sobel’s direction rarely clarifies the story. A few moments have theatrical power, like when Antigone (Jolly Abraham) steps into the auditorium to argue with Creon (John Livingston Rolle) about why she should bury her seditious brother. That gesture activates the audience by turning us into the common people, and it implies Antigone has more power over the masses than the king. Mostly, though, the production lacks purpose.

Sobel directs from the neck up, so that actors overanimate their faces but rarely use their bodies when they speak. And when they do move, they make random crosses or turns that distract from the text instead of supporting it. 

The failures of translation and staging are especially cruel to “Oedipus at Colonus,” in which the disgraced former king dies in a foreign land. The play is largely philosophical, and without a vivid script or clear physical life, it becomes soporific.

Of the cast, only Rolle reaches tragic proportions. Mourning the deaths in “Antigone,” he uses his low, powerful voice to extend syllables and highlight key phrases, giving rich texture to Creon’s despair. Most importantly, he doesn’t try to simulate “real” histrionics — a tactic that makes most of the cast seem phony.

Harry Feiner’s set design is a bland collection of panels, and Devon Painter’s costumes are so stereotypically Greek — sashes and sandals galore — they make the actors look silly. A program note details the inspiration for Painter’s designs, but like so much of this production, those choices just don’t translate.

The Oedipus Cycle

Pearl Theater; 160 seats; $55 top

Production: A Pearl Theater Company presentation of three plays in three acts by Sophocles, translated by Peter Constantine. Directed by Shepard Sobel.

Creative: Sets, Harry Feiner; costumes, Devon Painter; lighting, Stephen Petrilli; sound, M. L. Dogg; dramaturg, Kate Farrington; production stage manager, Dassance Resler. Opened Oct. 27, 2008. Reviewed Oct. 23. Running time: 3 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: With: Jay Stratton, Dominic Cuskern, John Livingston Rolle, Jolly Abraham, Susan Heyward, Jack Moran, Joel Richards, T.J. Edwards

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