Chet Greason, firstname.lastname@example.org
Oedipus Rex was one of the productions I was most looking forward to this Festival season. While familiar with the story of the ill-fated Greek king, I had never actually seen this, one of the oldest surviving pieces of drama in the world, performed live.
Oedipus Rex was first performed in 429 BC. It was a time before the modern conventions of western theatre we tend to assume are universal were developed. Drama was instead a very ritualistic process with religious roots; simple in setting, with masked actors and a chorus of 12-15 people to tell the audience what it was supposed to be feeling emotionally. Casts were limited to only three male actors, and genre was strictly relegated to three categories: comedy, tragedy, and satyr (burlesque).
Despite the often bloody nature of tragedy, deaths were considered inappropriate for viewing, and always occurred offstage.
With this in mind, it’s understandable if a modern production of an ancient play like Oedipus Rex looks or sounds a little weird. Add to that director Daniel Brooks’ attempts to infuse contemporary aspects via costumes and settings, and the audience is in for a unique experience. For anyone looking for something different, it will likely prove pleasing.
Oedipus’ story plays out like a kind of inquiry, all seemingly taking place in the same, sparse room. The set is bedecked to look like the sterile floor of a slaughterhouse, draped in plastic and lit by the kind of flood lamps that might illuminate a prison yard.
This is where Oedipus conducts his investigations into the murder of Laius, the former king of Thebes and Oedipus’ predecessor. Laius’ unsolved murder is believed to be the source of a deadly plague that has been decimating the city. Speaking to witness after witness, Oedipus slowly comes to the realization that not only is he the case’s prime suspect, but a twisted prophecy concerning him appears to have already come to pass.
The cast is decked out in the kind of fashionable 1960s-era business attire one sees in Mad Men, but tinged by a desperate ritualistic nature, making cash offerings to the gods and anointing themselves with hand-santizer.
Between interrogations, the chorus, with faces painted in primal slashes, deliver their impassioned soliloquies which appear like religious sermons made to crowds of plague-ridden Thebans. A priest of Zeus (Shannon Taylor), with glaring red robes straight out of Darth Vader’s personal retinue, also lends a kind of pseudo-fascist-theocratic feel to the play.
Oedipus Rex is every bit as intense as it sounds. Combined with the sterile setting, a set of booming drums keep a constant, ominous drone throughout most of the play. The cast, too, attempts to up the intensity by yelling frequently. This runs hot and cold. Chorus member Brad Hodder, for example, delivers a fine soliloquy that builds in its religious fervour. Others, like the aforementioned red priest, scream suddenly and without cause, making a request for aid to the king sound more like an unhinged rebuke than an appeal.
For anyone who saw the chamber production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, you’ll know there is such a thing as too much intensity, and that unchecked angst and agony can get tiresome very quickly. Although Oedipus doesn’t err nearly as egregiously in this as that other nearly unwatchable play, it would benefit from toning down the anger in a scene or two.
That said, there are some truly stellar performances in Oedipus Rex. Foremost amongst them is Nigel Bennett as seer Teiresias, who plays the prophet as a blind transsexual who hisses, clicks, preens, thunders, and derides the king with the self-assured air of one who is privy to the unmitigated truth. It is a mesmerizing role that will have you hanging on Bennett’s every word.
Lally Cadeau also has a compelling cameo as the servant who tells of Oedipus and his queen’s fate, and Kevin Bundy injects some much-appreciated comedy as a sleazy messenger.
Gord Rand, as the titular king, obviously has an exhausting role, spending most of his time onstage and carrying the bulk of the dialogue. He is a very human Oedipus, beginning with the approachable air of a politician in a precarious position before peeling that away as his shame is laid bare for the populous to see. There are awkward moments, such as when Rand suddenly starts stamping his feet in a childish tantrum, or when his voice occasionally lilts upwards and stays there for extended periods; however, the performance, for the most part, is measured, and nicely evokes the unravelling of the king’s surety and confidence.
How appropriate that it is his final scene, performed completely nude, splattered in blood, and momentarily wrapped in plastic like the victim of a serial killer, when Oedipus is his most true. With all the rank and formality of his position stripped away, this is where we cease to see Oedipus the king and instead see Oedipus the person.
It is a heavy production, but satisfyingly new for a piece so old.