From the moment one enters Stage West at the Herberger, Black Theatre Troupe's production of The Gospel at Colonus grabs one's coattails and hangs on 'til the final hosanna. Pulling off a flawless production of The Gospel at Colonus -- which fuses Greek theater with Pentecostal oratory and West African, rhythm-and-blues and gospel music -- is no small achievement. Written by noted avant-garde playwright Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson in 1983, Gospel is a complex, tricky piece of theater that requires a large and multitalented cast to enliven its daunting tale of Oedipus' final days.
Sophocles' story, originally presented as a trilogy of plays, is considered among the finest examples of classical Greek drama. Most of us know Oedipus Rex, the first installment in which Oedipus unwittingly murders his father, the King of Thebes, marries his mother, and assumes his father's throne. Upon discovering what he's done, Oedipus blinds himself and is later exiled from his home. The Gospel at Colonus is based on Sophocles' second installment, Oedipus at Colonus, whose slim story details the end of Oedipus' life. Pretty much all that happens is that the weary pariah arrives with his daughters (who are also his sisters) in Colonus, where he at last finds peace in his final days.
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Breuer's genius is in isolating a Christian theme (salvation through suffering) in the pagan story of Oedipus. He's punched up the parallels between sanctified services and Greek drama by placing his adaptation on the pulpit of an African-American Pentecostal church, where the Greek chorus is transformed into a rowdy choir and gospel music carries us through Oedipus' redemption. Set to Telson's remarkable score, which draws on contemporary blues and gospel music, Breuer's lyrics simplify Sophocles' story without dumbing it down.
But even before Oedipus arrives onstage -- dressed like a pimp, and accompanied by a trio of similarly garbed and vocally gymnastic henchmen -- Michael J. Eddy's cones of dusty light and Jeff Thomson's stunningly simple set design have us captivated. As the band and singers slowly wander onto the set, talking and laughing and greeting one another -- one of director Jared Sakren's many sly, inventive reminders that Gospel is a glorified prayer meeting -- we're drawn into an exultant evening built on one show-stopper after another.
The Gospel at Colonus
Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe
Continues through Sunday, March 3. Call 602-258-8128
Rod Ambrose, who presides as Preacher Oedipus, was born to play a pulpit-pounding minister. His great, growling baritone rolls over us, punctuated with yelps of jubilation and howls of dismay. His musical counterpart, James Bobo, enacts Singer Oedipus in a soul-stirring performance that conjures both Ray Charles and James Brown. His colleagues, the Oedipus Trio (Leo Brothers, Edward Redditt, and Reverend Lionel Nealy), each take a yowsa solo turn backed by the dazzling choir, whose lively testifying is a delightful distraction throughout. Just when I thought the show couldn't improve on Kwane Vedrene's powerful preaching or Elaine Bardwell's passionate reading of Antigone, Shaikh S. Brown turned up with a son's plea for forgiveness that tore through an already resplendent production.
Haldane S. Henry and Bertrand Russell Jr. deserve nods for assembling a crackerjack nine-piece band, and Sakren should be celebrated for steering a seamless production of such a thorny theater piece. I've waited all season for a performance that hits every mark, and I found it Sunday afternoon in the shimmering, magnificent church service that is Black Theatre Troupe's Gospel at Colonus.