The Joy of Rex

With a play first performed almost 2,500 years ago, Southwest Shakespeare Company provides the opportunity to transcend the ages by bringing to life the nightmarish story Oedipus Rex.

One of Sophocles' Theban plays, Oedipus is the well-known story of one man's ignorant and arrogant fight against the gods. The play begins with the revelation that a plague afflicting Thebes will be lifted only after the murder of Thebes' last king, Laius, has been atoned. Oedipus, Thebes' current king and husband of Laius' widow, Jocasta, commits himself to lifting the plague by ferreting out and punishing the murderer.

Hanging over this public inquiry like a cloud is an earlier prophecy that Oedipus would kill his own father and marry his mother. By the end of the investigation, we learn that Oedipus has, unknowingly, done just that. Having been abandoned by his real parents, Laius and Jocasta, as an infant, Oedipus was raised by a neighboring king, but finally ascended to the throne and bed of Laius, whom Oedipus had killed in an altercation when he encountered Laius on his travels. After Oedipus realizes he is responsible for the "evil deeds" he has vowed to resolve, he blinds himself, both as punishment and to escape visual reminders of his acts.

Centuries after it was written, this haunting story is still relevant. Is there such a thing as fate, and can man escape it? Should ignorance of wrongdoing protect a person from its moral consequences? Should punishment be doled out by man, or by a higher power?

SSC's brave production of Oedipus Rex asks these age-old questions once again. Made up of long monologues and a traditional Greek chorus, the show is one of stark contrasts.

Mike Eddy's effective lighting design is both harsh and warm as the mood of the play moves from desperation to pity. Contrast this with Karen Weber's stage design, which consists of a drab curtain and impractical playing areas that make it difficult for characters to interact physically. ItsasoPetrokarina's costumes range from creative, mummylike rags for the chorus (symbolizing the despair of Thebes) to a paint-covered arts-and-crafts smock for Oedipus and an evening gown thatmakes Creon look like a fashion-challenged crossdresser.

The treatment of the chorus is similarly mixed. Director David Barker allows the members to occasionally step out of the chorus and take individual identities, giving place for honest expressions of the desperation felt by Oedipus' subjects. But Barker also clings to the ancient Greek style ofunison speech for the chorus, which contributes more rhythm than meaning. These contrasts leavethe audience confused as to whether the chorus issimply a voice-over, narrating the story, or whether its members are struggling mortals withwhom we can identify.

Finally, the acting is both brilliant and banal. Inthe lead role of Oedipus, Russ Wendt lacks the range required to convince the audience that it is watching a godlike king devolve into a blind wanderer. Evidence of the deep inner conflict and shame the character must experience is missing.

As Jocasta, Delores D'Amore Goldsmith mistakes volume for emotion. Her climactic scene, a prelude to her suicide, is almost comically overdone.

On the other hand, Al Tieman provides a humorous breath of fresh air as the messenger from Corinth, delivering a natural performance full of irreverence and confusion. Tieman's high, soaring voice adds a needed lightness to weighty issues being played out.

Timothy Reader is disturbing as the blind prophet Tieresias. A cross between Hannibal Lecter and the gatekeeper of the Emerald City, Reader shines as a misunderstood monster.

Director Barker seems to have lacked a clear-cut direction for this production--realistic, natural methods of acting clash with a more deliberately stylized approach, leaving patrons to decide which approach should hold sway.

Though this may not be the best Oedipus Rex of the past 2,500 years, it still is a rare opportunity to see one of the pioneering works of the art of drama, described as "the masterpiece of the ancient stage." The chance should not be missed to see this gift offered to us by SSC.--Gerald Thomson

Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of Oedipus Rex continues through Saturday, January 20, at Mountain View High School Auditorium, 2700 East Brown in Meas.


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