Oedipus Rex

Written by Sophocles, Translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald
Directed by Polly Hogan
At the Lyric Stage Theatre, Clarendon St. YWCA
Boston (617) 437-7172 Through April 14th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Lyric Stage, whose particular virtue it is to have evolved a company style that does justice to "light classics" such as last month's delightful "Lady Windermere's Fan" -- has taken on the classic of classics, "Oedipus Rex, in the Fitts-Fitzgerald translation.

How is the Lyric to stage Sophocles' play in their tiny jewel box of a theatre, how make it "work" for audiences that are accustomed to seeing social comedies, or for the high school students who will be coming by the busload to be "exposed to the classics" ?

Impossible to try to recreate the conditions of the original performance: that was a form of civil worship, held outdoors in a huge amphitheater before tens of thousands of people, the masks and music and dance liturgical, the plots revealing heroes whose actions magically affected the welfare of the whole community as they struggle to understand and accept the will of the Gods. The myth of the hero fated to kill the King his father and marry the Queen his mother, and of the hero's spiritual blindness as each step he takes to avert his fate ironically brings it closer, is part of a ritual dating back to the Stone Age-- but the ritual was still a living tradition when the play "Oedipus Rex" was written.

On the other hand, the playwrights of Greece's Golden Age applied to the myths the sophistic reasoning of the Athenian democratic process and of the law courts, and in "Oedipus" Sophocles indulges in speculations about motive and consequence would not be out of place in a contemporary detective story. Some of the dialogue of Oedipus also seems very modern -- you could hear lines such as "judgments too quickly formed are dangerous" in an episode of TV's "Law and Order".

So--would the theatre choose a presentational production style that underlines the numinous strangeness of the work, more like Noh or Balinese dance-drama than Western naturalism? Use masks and chant and choreographed movement? Or use the conventions of forth-wall realism to convey the familiar emotional nexus of Freud's Oedipus Complex, pulling the modern audience in though direct empathy?

Director Polly Hogan seems to have decided to split the difference. In her program notes Hogan says that she believes that the story of Oedipus is based on an historical event, and that the Fate that overtakes the people and their city amounts to justice within that primitive society's definition of Sin and Redemption. The Lyric production is heavy on symbolism. Ted Simpson's set is a kind of sacred well/altar set in soil the color of dried blood, backed by a heavy brown wall with one door, the dark earthy tones etched with glints of bronze. Katherine Baldwin's costumes are in the same range but with touches of red and green, the line and fabric more barbaric than classical. The Lyric's veteran actors generally wear costumes well: Shaw and Coward characters usually look at home in their attire, moving and gesturing as if period conventions were second nature to them. Here, they all seem uncomfortable with their tunics and cloaks, with their ritualized gestures of greeting and propitiation, and the dance-like poses they fall into during their long silences.

Stll, and in spite of the symbolic elements, the actors play to each other in a naturalistic fashion, making eye contact with scene partners, registering emotion by minute facial changes, and scaling their voices to the Lyric Stage's intimate space. The effect is uneven. There is no attempt to incorporate the audience into the drama, no great propulsive sweep towards catastrophe, no sense that the Gods are present and operating on a scale that dwarfs man's, no lightning strokes of revelation or transformation -- but there are plenty of effective moments.

One pleasant surprise is the depth of talent that the Lyric has assembled. This production has a cast of seventeen, seven of them Equity members. The Oedipus, Steve McConnell, has presence, and vocal command, and intelligence, and he does anger well enough to keep the middle of the play boiling. What McConnell lacks, and what it is not reasonable to expect at this level, is the kind of charisma that spellbinds the audience to the hero the way the people of Thebes must have been bound to Oedipus when he defeated the Sphinx and they made him king.

James L. Walker, who as Creon has less of a burden, handles it with such grace that Oedipus comes off looking rather shabby after their heated exchange. Deena Mazer's Jocasta costume calls to mind Cecil B. DeMille's idea of a classical sexpot, which puts more emphasis on the physical relationship between Jocasta and her son/husband than is perhaps wise. Mazer is at her impressive best when Jocasta recognizes what is about to be revealed, and makes her silent decision to go inside and kill herself.

James Bodge, as the chorus leader, strikes a good balance between individuality as a character and the chorus function of representing the community. Michael Bradshaw is chilling as the prophet Teiresias, his dead eyes and ancient voice supernaturally powerful as he turns Oedipus's curse on the traitorous criminal back on Oedipus himself. Michael Thurston, in the tiny role of Laius' shepherd, is a model of classical acting. Thruston provides a rounded character within a strict rhetorical frame, and his simple "I felt sorry for the baby" touches the heart . Olive Dunbar, who as Chorus/Nurse narrates the gruesome offstage climax, is simply magnificent. Dunbar's voice is the voice of experience beyond bearing, and she ties together the ritual and psychological elements of the drama and makes Oedipus' fearful act present to the imagination at last, vivid and moving even to a modern audience.