Oedipus plays don't live up to standards

Review: Ambitious as it is, there are some high and low points in these shortened renditions.

September 05, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There's ample justification for performing Sophocles' Oedipus cycle - Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone - in a single night (albeit in abridged form). The ancient Greeks used to see the plays in one fell swoop. Now modern audiences, whose attention spans are considerably shorter, can do so, too.

Michael Kahn, director of The Oedipus Plays at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, is an old hand at abridged epics. In past seasons, he has directed one-night versions of both parts of Henry IV, all three parts of Henry VI, and shortened renditions of O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra and Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Seeing the three Oedipus plays together not only reinforces the themes of fate, the role of the individual and good vs. evil, it also allows audiences to chart character development. In the course of the evening, for example, truth-seeking Oedipus goes from beloved leader to self-imposed pariah to his final redemption.

In this production's best moments, the plays' timelessness and the timeliness come together in a way that is almost startling. This is particularly true as we watch a mature and liberated Antigone - whom we initially see as a small child - defy the male establishment and the law to do what she knows is right.

But there are troublesome elements in Kahn's vision, beginning with the African flavor he has imposed on the plays. This flavor manifests itself not only in Toni-Leslie James' tribal costumes and Charles McClennahan's pictograph-embellished set, but most prominently in Marlies Yearby's African-inspired choreography for the Chorus and composer Baikida Carroll's incidental score, which is performed by three onstage musicians playing native instruments.

At first the stylization works well - the exoticism reinforces the stylized features of classical Greek drama. Masks, for example, are common to both (although the masks at the Shakespeare Theatre figure primarily in the scenic design). And initially, the Chorus' speeches sound like tribal chants.

But as the production progresses, its look and sound appear more modern and more Western. This modernity makes some sense since Antigone, whose story ends the cycle, is seen as one of the first modern women. But the increased European sensibility is more difficult to explain and in the end, whittles away at the cohesiveness and impact of the evening. That sensibility is especially evident in a greater reliance on synthesized music, which is jarring alongside the African instrumentation.

The production also is hampered by Avery Brooks' distractingly busy performance in the title role. The actor's low-pitched, melodic voice is well-suited to Sophocles' poetry (translated and abridged by Nicholas Rudall), giving it an operatic feel. But his gestures (his hands are constantly moving) and bearing (he frequently leans and sways) cannot disguise a lack of inner turmoil. For instance, his character's anger at the prophecies of the seer Teiresias is muted; later, when Oedipus learns that the prophecies are true, Brooks grabs his stomach and seems about to have a convulsion, as if his pain is more physical than psychic.

Not that there aren't a number of powerful, revelatory performances. As blind, ancient Teiresias, Earle Hyman - his eyes ringed with dark circles and his head shrouded by a long, gray wig - is an intriguing mix of authoritative, scary and grandfatherly. Johnny Lee Davenport's steadfast Theseus, King of Athens, is the evening's rare voice of reason and graciousness. Cynthia Martells' determined, principled Antigone is a noble role model. And, in another of the production's illuminating character arcs, Michael Genet's Creon goes from being a modest and sensible No. 2 man in Oedipus Rex to a monarch blinded by power in Antigone.

Aiming at a high and difficult target, Kahn has chosen this ambitious and unconventional interpretation of three of the greatest Greek tragedies to launch his 15th season as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre. Ambition can be a good thing, of course. But it also can be dangerous; it was the undoing of more than a few Greek heroes. Though this production's fate isn't that dire, it ultimately falls short of the mark.

The Oedipus Plays

Where: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and most Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 21

Admission: $14.50-$63

Call: 202-547-1122

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