At the Court Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—The Court Theatre is launching its ambitious revival of ancient Greece’s Oedipus trilogy with Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex,” one of the great tragedies in the history of Western drama. Scholars can only speculate on how ancient Greek plays were performed, so modern productions have considerable leeway in deciding on a play’s look and acting style. The Court staging opts for an ancient Greek look blended with distinct, and sometimes startling, modern touches. The result is intriguing and finally powerful.
“Oedipus Rex” is the first play in the Oedipus Trilogy. The Court continues the project with “The Gospel at Colonus” next May and concludes with “Antigone,” scheduled for the theater’s 2020/2021 season.
“Oedipus Rex” may be a guessing game in determining what ancient Greek audiences actually heard and saw, but the storyline is pretty well established. Oedipus is the king of Thebes. His city is suffering from a terrible plague so Oedipus sends Creon to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi to find relief for his city. The oracle states that the plague won’t be lifted until Thebes rids itself of an unclean person, the individual who killed former king Laius.
The narrative gradually reveals that many years ago Oedipus unknowing killed Laius, not knowing that the man was actually his father. Thus Oedipus himself is the cause of the city’s agony. At the end of the play, the guilt-ridden king has blinded himself and he exits the city he once ruled, attended only by his daughter Antigone, seeking an anonymous death. The power of the story resides in how the confident Oedipus gradually learns of the truth about his role in the death of Laius. As in all Greek tragedy, the play’s action occurs entirely offstage and the story’s unfolding is narrated on stage by various characters. The play is thus all talk, but the intensity builds as the revelations mount, pointing inexorably to Oedipus’s guilt.
The Court revival, under Charles Newell’s directing, uses a translation prepared by the late Nicolas Rudall, a classical scholar at the University of Chicago and founder of the Court Theatre. Rudal’s language is colloquial English, easily accessible as the intensity of the story escalates until Oedipus’s patricide is finally revealed. Viewers should be able to follow the plot without difficulty, even if they are unfamiliar with the Greek myths Sophocles has woven into his masterpiece. There is even some humor along the way, though the audience laughter may be as much a release from the tensions of the narrative as a reaction to deliberate comedy. Adding additional variety to the performance are a few musical interludes that have a spiritual flavor.
Kevin Roston, Jr., is cast as Oedipus. Roston has gained stardom locally, especially for his performances in plays by August Wilson. Roston brings a potent voice and a rough hew physical presence to the character. His Oedipus doesn’t exude much regal bearing but he is a commanding figure and he portrays the now shattered king’s grief and despair at the end of the play with moving credibility.
Roston is well supported by a 13-member ensemble, several doubling as speaking characters as well as members of the chorus. Kate Collins is a savvy Queen Jocasta who senses her husband is courting trouble if he pursuits his investigation into the death of Laius. Christopher Donahue is excellent as the blind seer Teiresias who stimulates some laughter from the audience with his droll comments. Timothy Edward Kane is Creon and Stef Tovar is the Theban shepherd who fearfully holds the key to Oedipus’s tragic story. Other speaking roles are well handled by Kai Ealy, Wendy Robie, Aerial Williams, and Sheldon D. Brown, all doubling as members of the chorus, which is filled out by TayLar, Jennifer Glasse, Sonya Madrigal, Angie Shriner, and chorus leader Mark Spates Smith.
The production’s dominant color is minimalist white. The physical production blends the traditional classical and the startlingly modern. The characters wear robes (costumes designed by Jacqueline Firkins) vaguely indicative of ancient Greek togas. The set designed by John Culbert is dominated by a large five-step staircase used by the main characters and the supporting chorus for dramatic ascents and descents.
Erin Kilmurray is credited with movement design that ranges from solemn and moody to orgiastic frenzy. Much of the movement doesn’t seem to have much relevance to the narrative, like a young chorus member playing with a small illuminated globe, pushing it on the stage with her nose, but other semi dance bits energize the action between talking scenes.. Keith Parham’s lighting effects are sometimes mood setting and atmospheric and sometimes jarring bursts of bright light. The sound design by Andre designed by Andre Pluess and Christopher LaPorte includes ear-shattering electronic sounds.
Newell’s staging obviously isn’t the only way to present the play but his way works. There is nothing archaic about the Court revival and the attentive viewer will be caught up in the mounting suspense as the true story of Oedipus’s killing of Laius is gradually and relentlessly exposed. Some of the show’s more extravagant visual and aural interjections may be distracting, but overall Newell’s directing is coherent and absorbing.
‘Oedipus Rex’ gets a rating.
“Oedipus Rex” runs through December 8 at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $37.50 to $84. Call 773 753 4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org.
Contact Dan: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. November 2019
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