By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
Are we the masters of our own destiny, or do the fates conspire against us? That is the question that Sophocles posits in “Oedipus Rex.” His answer isn’t a pretty one. According to the Athenian playwright, man is locked into his own fate from birth to death, and the more he tries to wrangle out of it, the closer fate comes running up beside him and kicking him in the balls.
You will not get a spoiler warning, because this ancient tale is almost 3,000 years old: A tyrant named Laius took a child bride, Jocasta (Shammen McCune), but as soon as she gives birth, he hears of a prophecy that his son will murder him and marry his wife. He rips the child from his mother and orders the child to be killed.
The child, Oedipus (Justin Wade Wilson), is taken away to be raised by Polybus and Merope, the king and queen of Corinth. There, young Oedipus learns of a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother (sound familar?). He flees Corinth to deny his fate, assuming that Polybus and Merope were his biological parents. On the way, he gets into a dispute with a surly man on the road. He kills the man. Any guesses who it is?
If you guessed Laius, move to the head of the class.
Oedipus arrives in Thebes, where the town is under the curse of the Sphinx (Karen Baum). Oedipus defeats the Sphinx by answering its riddles. The townspeople are thrilled. They are so overcome with joy, they marry him off to the wife to the deceased king.
Dunt dunt da!
That’s when things get all Jerry Springer. The couple live in peace for a time, having four children, two boys and two girls (daughter Antigone gets her own spinoff).
Then another plague hits Thebes. It turns out the gods are displeased again. Those Greek gods are always stirring the pot. They want Laius’s killer brought to justice. Oedipus vows to capture the miscreant who committed regicide. The new king puts his wife’s brother Creon (Johnny Lee Davenport) in charge of searching for the eyewitness who saw the king die, and the mysteries begin to unravel.
Obviously the audience gets to the truth a few steps before Oedipus, but it’s not complex, especially if you’re familiar with the Oedipal Complex. Watching the play unfold is a little bit like watching a car crash in slow motion. You know it’s going to be devastating but you can’t pull your eyes away.
Woe, there was never a more ill-fated love affair than that of Oedipus and Jocasta. You’ll blanch every time Oedipus and Jocasta kiss and embrace.
Wilson plays Oedipus with a bold intensity. He commands the stage with a royal presence befit for a king. He is matched in power and charisma by McCune.
Creon is strong, powerful and angry. Davenport plays him stately poise and tremendous self-confidence. He is amazing in the role.
They are surrounded by a chorus of actors, all who excel in their roles, especially Linda Haston and Kevin H. Moore.
Haston leads the chorus. Her voice formidable, potent and full of authority.
In a flashback, Moore gets a brief turn playing King Laius, and it is a hell of a performance, even though it is wordless.
Two special guest stars, Karen Baum and James FitzGerald, grace the stage with brief but memorable roles.
Note: Sophocles, one of the world’s first and best playwrights, is aided here by director Alan Stanford. It’s a masterful adaptation of the text. It is simple without being simplistic. The actors pantomime the actions. The words become more potent as the exposition is played out before us. The chorus members each speak with their own distinct voice, instead of blending into one monotone amalgam. They become fiery, passionate beings with their own desires. The words ring true and as relevant today as they were written more than 2,500 years ago (in 429 BC to be exact).
Stanford’s adaptation should be the standard-bearer for the twenty-first century. Don’t be embarrassed to laugh. There are a lot of witty moments. Much of the humor comes from its relevancy in modern times. The chorus scolds Oedipus for living so publically. It’s almost as if the Greek king had a Twitter account.
The set and lighting were also expertly done. Johnmichael Bohach’s design looks like a temple out of an old episode of the original Star Trek. It is eerily lit by Antonio Colaruotolo, with a lot of deep blues, reds and purples.
The only drawback were conditions of the venue. It is stiflingly warm in the theater space, and the seats are not very comfortable. One patron (apparently a subscriber) brought her own cushion.
All things considered, Oedipus rocks! It is still an important work of art. It’s one mother of a show.
The Union Project, 801 North Negley Avenue, Highland Park, Pittsburgh, PA 15206. For more information, click here.