Theatre Review | 'Oedipus Rex' 

click to enlarge Ron Dufort, left, as King Oedipus.

Mundell Modern Pixels Photography.

Ron Dufort, left, as King Oedipus.

What better way to wrap up Valentine’s week than with one of the most toxic romantic partnerships of all time? The Company Theatre, becoming known for staging some of the most widely produced plays in the Western dramatic canon, presents the ancient Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex” at the Temple Theater through Feb 25.

First performed around 429 BC, “Oedipus Rex” is a bleak tragedy by Sophocles bemoaning the lack of free will under callous gods. It set the standard for centuries of dramatic tragedy, largely because ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was so impressed with it, he used it as the prototypical play in “Poetics,” his seminal writing about what theater could and should be.

click to enlarge Ian Cannioto as the blind prophet Tiresias. - MUNDELL MODERN PIXELS PHOTOGRAPHY.
  • Mundell Modern Pixels Photography.
  • Ian Cannioto as the blind prophet Tiresias.
The play starts with a mystery: in order to lift the curse of the plague on his kingdom, King Oedipus (Ron Dufort) needs to uncover the murderer of the former king, whose wife he married. Oedipus is sure he’s up to the task. After all, he outsmarted the gods by fleeing his home to avoid the prophecy saying he would kill his father and sleep with his mother! He can do anything! He will find the truth, regardless of warnings by the blind prophet Tiresias (Ian Cannioto) that ignorance is bliss, or his wife Jocasta (Yaikira Capri Coleman) that sometimes babies are adopted. Oedipus keeps picking at the scab until it leads to blood and more blood.

The production, directed by Company Theatre co-founder and executive director Sean Britton-Milligan, takes a “less is more” approach, starting with its set, which consists only of a grand staircase of gray marble-splintered stairs. Actors either descend the stairs or enter from the back of the Temple Theater and congregate at the bottom of the steps, too often delivering speeches to the steps rather than to the audience.

click to enlarge Yaikira Capri Coleman as Jocasta. - MUNDELL MODERN PIXELS PHOTOGRAPHY.
  • Mundell Modern Pixels Photography.
  • Yaikira Capri Coleman as Jocasta.
The only props are pieces that accompany the costumes (designed by Celeste Clauson): a staff for Tiresias, gold half masks for the Greek chorus. There is not much onstage to look at, so all attention goes to the words the actors are reciting.

Fortunately, the cast confidently projects the language with engaging, though occasionally stiff, performances. The leads carry the piece. Dufort as Oedipus is passionate and firm, but has enough charisma to make him a convincing ruler. “I still must be king,” he says. “Even if you are wrong?” asks his brother-in-law Creon (played by a consistently dour Shane Blauvelt). Coleman as Jocasta steps in as the voice of reason, wearing a stunning gray and gold dress, maintaining a regal, emotionally guarded until-its-too-late demeanor.

The most atmospheric moments occur when the Greek chorus (portrayed with earnest intensity by Briar-Rose Murphy, Courtney Mallen, and, most impactfully, Kidane Malik) directly addresses the audience. They speak of the gods and fate under green and purple lights (designed by Matt Oliner) over an underscoring of instrumental music (designed by Britton-Mulligan) that sounds like it’s from an epic fantasy video game.

click to enlarge Kidane Malik, part of the Greek chorus. - MUNDELL MODERN PIXELS PHOTOGRAPHY.
  • Mundell Modern Pixels Photography.
  • Kidane Malik, part of the Greek chorus.
Other than this quest-like music, there is no modern lens or approach to appeal to audiences whose tastes may differ from Aristotle’s. This production trusts the text to carry the show, maybe a bit too much. The play dates back to when two characters talking to each other was still peak theatrical innovation, and some of the long, expository monologues can be a drag for modern audiences.

It’s fascinating to think back to when this play was new, long before Freud’s questionable complex and before “a family secret gets revealed!” was standard fare for a dramatic play, and to imagine an audience that may have believed a different outcome was possible for Oedipus.

By now, his fate is sealed. Many audiences that read this play in English class are wise to the ending even before they enter the theater. The actors are too, and the knowledge of the tragedy is a shadow over the humorless scenes. As Tiresias says, “it is a miserable thing to be wise.”

"Oedipus Rex" runs through February 25 at Temple Theater. More info and tickets here.

Katherine Varga is a contributor to CITY. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].
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