Oedipus Rex

oedipus-cutAlan Stanford’s new adaption of the classic Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex is a modern day masterpiece.

Sometimes you just know within the first few minutes that this is really going to be good. That first inclination comes not from the play itself, but from that initial exposure to the actors, setting, and direction. Admittedly, you know the story written by Sophocles some twenty-five hundred years ago has to be pretty compelling to have held up over the long haul.

Chances are, you are aware of the main story, much of which transpires before the play actually begins. Queen Jocasta of Thebes has just given birth to a beautiful baby boy. Her husband King Laius learns from the oracles that he is doomed to die at the hand of his son. That doesn’t really leave the King a lot of options, either kill the baby boy now or be killed by him later.  The King figures he might as well nip this in the bud and after injuring the child’s feet he orders his servant to take the baby to the mountains and leave him there to die.  Instead, the servant gives the child to a shepherd who names him Oedipus (Greek for swollen feet).

Justin Wade Wilson as Oedipus, Shammen McCune as Jocasta
Justin Wade Wilson as Oedipus, Shammen McCune as Jocasta

The servant takes the boy to his home country of Corinth, where he gives the child to the barren Queen and King of Corinth and the child is raised as their son. He becomes the handsome, educated and articulate Oedipus. He learns from another oracle that he is destined to kill his father and mate with his mother, which horrifies him. He doesn’t realize he is adopted, and because he wishes his parents no harm he leaves Corinth.  While on his travels he gets into a scuffle with another group and in a fit anger of kills some men. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, one of the men was King Laius and the first portion of the oracle’s prophecy has come to pass.

Our play begins with Oedipus arriving in Thebes as the city is under siege by the Sphinx. Oedipus solves the riddles of the Sphinx and as his reward is given the kingship of Thebes and the hand of Queen Jocasta (his biological mother) in marriage. None of the main characters know this, which sets the stage for the resulting drama.

If you have seen Oedipus or read one of the literal translations from the original Greek, it’s pretty difficult to get through the long speeches and endless choruses.

In this production Director Alan Stanford has adapted the original to a more modern style of speaking yet still retains the timeless sense of the original. Stanford has created an Oedipus Rex for our time. This adaptation and production serve to reinforce Sophocles’ reminder that humanities flaws haunt us generation after generation. Corruption is self-delusion that leads to the belief that only one person has all the answers to cure our ills.

Oedipus is not an inherently flawed or bad fellow, he doesn’t yet know he murdered his father or married his mother.  After all, he’s the hero that saved Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx.  Once rumors of the truth come out, his human failings take hold.

Karen Baum as The Sphinx
Karen Baum as The Sphinx

The Union Projects’ performance space is long and linear, with audiences on either side. Stanford’s staging has he townspeople on one end of the stage with the castle and ruling people on the other. The action flows back and forth like March Madness. Madness it is as, Oedipus and the townspeople come to grips with the conundrum of Oedipus’ lineage, the oracle’s prophecy and what it means for them.

PICT’s cast is a mix of veteran actors with prolific resumes and those early their careers.

Twenty nine year old Penn State alum Justin Wade Wilson’s powerful performance as Oedipus presents both a likeable and admirable leader as he saves Thebes. He skillfully transitions to a much darker and intriguing Oedipus as he searches for the truth that when revealed will bring his ultimate downfall.

Pittsburgh’s Shammen McCune is Queen Jocasta. Watch her performance closely as her initial meeting with Oedipus turn into romantic love. Through the course of the play she beautifully portrays the realization of horror; she has married her son, born him children and yet still loves him as both a son and husband.

Central to moving the story forward is the blind prophet Tiresius played by Pittsburgh’s James Fitzgerald. Tiresius is, against his own objections, the first to tell Oedipus that he killed his father and married his mother, facts that Oedipus refuses to believe.  Fitzgerald’s strong performance is pivotal in unleashing the carnage to follow.

Johnny Lee Davenport plays Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon. Davenport has the perfectly imposing stage presence to counter Wilson’s Oedipus. There is quite an interesting bit of clever stage direction as Oedipus demands Creon be executed for supposedly attempting to undermine him.

Shammen McCune as Jocasta
Shammen McCune as Jocasta

Stanford’s Oedipus Rex is set in North Africa. Set design by Johnmichael Bohach is simple in form and nearly monochromatic in color, conveying a sense of warmth, royalty and the bloodshed ahead. Michael Montgomery’s costume design relays the African theme with a touch of Egyptian motif. The actors transition between chorus members and main characters with their costumes effectively supporting their dual roles.

Almeda Beynon’s Sound Design underscore the tension and drama very effectively, subtlety appearing ghostlike as needed and disappearing just as subtlety. Her compositions serve to give the mind a pause and as a means to gather your thoughts as an audience member.

This production through Stanford’s direction and adaptation brings to audiences a timeless Oedipus Rex, a modern take on the human condition. This is a powerful and yet entertaining classic drama full of conspiracy theories, distrust, intrigue and, yes, love.

Oedipus Rex by PICT Classic Theatre at the Union Project in Highland Park playing now through April 3rd. Tickets at picttheattre.org or by calling 412-561-6000

Thanks to PICT for the complementary tickets. Photos courtesy of Suellen Fitzsimmons.