Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
It’s likely that pretty much everyone going to see Court Theatre’s new production of Oedipus Rex already knows at least the basics of the tale of the unfortunate King fated by Apollo to kill his own father and marry his mother. Even the audiences seeing the original production by Sophocles over 2500 years ago already knew it; the playwright was telling a familiar mythological story that had been around for centuries. His focus, then, was not on the plot itself—compelling though it is—but on how best to tell the story on the stage. Thus it is with every staging of the classic tragedy, and Court’s stunning production shows that, even so many centuries later, there are still new ways to mine this play for its powerful character journey.
Directed by Court Artistic Director Charles Newell from a translation by Court Founder Nicholas Rudall, this version strips the play down to its essence. It is performed on a visually striking but empty silver-gray John Culbert set that allows for all sorts of interesting stage pictures and movement, but the focus of the play is always away from the set, addressing the audience ourselves as citizens of Thebes. In fact, the opening scenes don’t even use the stage: the actors situate themselves in the aisles of the theatre, pointedly interacting with audience members, drawing us into the play that will follow and allowing Oedipus (Kevin Roston, Jr.) to direct his lines to us all. (The lights never even fully come down on the house; we are completely included within the play.) He promises that for the sake of his citizens he will unmask the secret killer of the previous King, Laios, and unintentionally sets off the series of cataclysmic events that will lead to his own downfall.
Roston is a powerful and dynamic force here in the regal purple robes (by costume designer Jacqueline Firkins) that separate him visually from the white-clothed chorus. It’s easy to see the strength of this character; we get the clear sense that he would stand out even wearing the same robes as everyone else. When he says he will solve their current problem, as he years before had solved the riddle of the Sphinx to lead them out of a plague, they believe him without hesitation. They have full and complete faith in him, knowing that, no matter what, he will do what is in their best interests. He even tells them that, should a member of his own house be implicated, the punishment would still follow.
Of course, he has no way of knowing where that proclamation will lead. But we do, and that is the point. It has been argued that Oedipus is more the pawn of Fate than a truly tragic figure, as the machinations of Apollo that orchestrate the path of his life begin long before he is even born, but Newell and Roston make sure that we can see that the King very clearly brings about his own demise through his virulent anger and distrust as well as his staunch insistence on following the path he has set himself even after he can see where it is leading. Many people warn him, including the infallible seer Teiresias (well portrayed by Christopher Donohue), various witnesses (including Stef Tovar and Wendy Robie) and even his wife/mother Jocasta herself. Kate Collins plays the Queen as utterly impervious to any oracles and soothsayers because she knows without a doubt, from personal experience, that they can be wrong. Her desperation when she discovers that it is she herself who has been very, very wrong is overwhelming: she is a woman as broken as Oedipus will soon become.
Timothy Edward Kane and Aeriel Williams essay the roles of Creon and Antigone and are clear and focused, though these characters have less to do here than the same actors will find in next fall’s Antigone, the third part of Sophocles’ trilogy (though the first that he wrote), which will conclude Court’s ambitious year-long foray into this tragic play cycle after next spring’s The Gospel at Colonus, based on Sophocles’ last play Oedipus at Colonus. These two actors will have the opportunity in the latter plays to explore their characters more deeply than their fairly brief appearances here allow. (In Williams’ case, Antigone is just a little girl in this play, and Creon, though he has some fine moments especially as he explains why he would not wish to be King, is more acted upon than anything else.) The show here belongs to Roston’s Oedipus, another accidental King who absolutely rules the stage even after his doom is clear. Other actors defer to him even in his pitiful, broken state, and Newell makes sure that all of the focus here is directed toward him. His final scene with Antigone is extremely moving, and his daughter’s fear at the revelation of what he has done is heartbreaking.
Newell also makes the decision to exchange most of Sophocles’ choral odes for sequences of choreographed movement and vocalizations, giving us a way to visualize a city coming apart at the seams and praying to the gods for deliverance. The wonderful ensemble (and movement designer Erin Kilmurray), aided by lighting designer Kevin Parham and co-sound designers Andre Pluess and Christopher LaPorte, deliver many deep explorations of emotion in reaction to what is happening in their world, often without any dialogue at all. In the end, however, it is all about Oedipus and how his blind insistence on learning the truth about his past dooms him to true blindness and incomprehensible loss. The notion of his sleeping with his mother is often tossed off as a joke in today’s world, but in Newell’s production it is clear that, though undeniably horrible, it is only one aspect of a much more complex play. There are plenty of comparisons to be made to today’s political climate, but Newell is only interested in the story he is telling, a timeless one of a man weighed down by his own ego and fallibility.
Oedipus Rex is now playing at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis St, Chicago, IL, until Dec 8. The show runs approximately 80 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.