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The voice that animates the Lansburgh Theatre these nights is a basso rumble that seems to emanate from some deep cavern of feeling. It has warmth and depthan almost physical presenceand although it emerges from the mouth of a king whose shoulders are draped in gold, if it came from a blind beggar (as it ultimately must), it would be no less arresting.
Avery Brooks possesses what is perhaps the ideal theatrical instrument, and his presence at the center of The Oedipus Plays, the Shakespeare Theatre’s strikingly executed, occasionally moving conflation of three Sophoclean masterworks, is an undeniable asset. What’s more, savvy casting has made that asset seem hereditary. The king’s mother (an elegantly regal Petronia Paley) and the daughter who follows him into exile (an implacable Cynthia Martells) have a similar vocal qualityhigher in timbre perhaps, but identical in weight. These are voices made for storytelling, the creation of myth, and tragedy.
And the tragic myth being served up is certainly one for the ages. Sophocles wrote it in three partsOedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigonebut his audience knew it whole: how Oedipus discovers that he has killed his father and married his mother, how he blinds himself and wanders 30 years in exile with his daughter Antigone, how his sons die while warring over succession to his throne, and how his brother-in-law, who succeeds them, condemns Antigone to death when she tries to give one of her brothers a proper burial.
What’s being argued in all three playsapart from the role of fate and godly intervention in Greek lifeis the relationship of the individual to divine law and to laws of the state. Oedipus breaks divine law regarding the killing and bedding of parentsand is punished for doing so. Antigone comes into conflict with man-made law when she embraces a divine law regarding burial ritesand is punished for doing so. Her brothers and uncle seek to place laws of the state above divine lawsand are punished for doing so.
Sophocles was also bound by lawstheatrical onesand he, too, broke some of them. He added a third actor to the two prescribed by Greek stage tradition, diminished the importance of the chorus to the play’s action, and championed the individuals on whom he centered his plays. Sophoclean characters don’t seek to avoid suffering as do, say, the tragic heroes of Aeschylus. Instead, they acknowledge and embrace suffering as their lot, and triumph through it, just as Christian saints would, centuries later.
It’s fair to say that Sophocles understood human motivation much as we do today. And he made his characters clear-spoken and comprehensible, even as he set them in conflict with forces much larger than they. That’s why his plays, despite their essentially declamatory nature, still play. They’re more modern than much of what followed them theatrically, though they’re bound by stage conventionsmasks, rituals, and the liketo which we no longer subscribe.
Setting the Oedipus story in a brightly theatricalized Africa, rather than in Greece, affords director Michael Kahn an opportunity to exchange one unfamiliar brand of theatricality for another. His African-American cast is attired largely in exotic patterned fabrics as it strides, dances, and parades around a stage splashed with vivid hues. Gleaming golden hieroglyphs float free of the walls, before a pair of massive gold doors through which the royals enter to what sounds like the roar of a wild beast. When the chorus chants, it does so to rhythmic drumming, all the while stomping and leaping in patterns that resemble tribal rites. Kahn finds ways to physicalize and enliven the interaction of individual characters, too.
None of which changes the fact that when Greek playwrights told stories, they actually told them, rather than allowing them to play out before the audience. Nearly everything that happens to Oedipus and his doomed familyall the deaths, fighting, and plotting that Shakespeare would have delighted in dramatizinghappens offstage. What we witness is how characters react when the offstage action is related to them by messengers, often long after the fact. The technique places the actual events at a definite remove, and modern audiences can’t help but leave feeling distanced. We’ve grown accustomed to the soap-opera joys of brash conflict and resolution, and while some moments still crackleJocasta crumbling in horror as she realizes that her husband is her son, then trying to keep that knowledge from himothers seem less immediate.
That’s partly because Nicholas Rudall’s vernacular translation is a tad flat. Granted, it has a certain muscularity when he’s in descriptive mode (“the blood…a stream of black rain from his eyes”), but there’s precious little poetry in such lines as “When the powers that be come here, my mind will be at ease.”
The production team has been encouraged to go for broke visually, with splashy results, including a brace of 20-foot-tall masks that dance into view and tower over the middle third of the evening. And the performancesbesides the folks mentioned earlier, Johnny Lee Davenport stands out as a fair-minded King Theseusare mostly fine, though they’re no more naturalistic than the design scheme. Characters careen around the stage to indicate emotion, and wriggling fingers in the chorus suggest social unrest. It’s certainly not subtle. Brooks, who stands straight and powerful before Oedipus’ fall, adopts the bent posture of an ancient while wandering the desert. And the folks with whom Oedipus takes refuge at Colonus spend the evening’s middle hour, for reasons best known to the director, balancing flamingolike on a single leg.
Still, there’s no denying that experiencing the whole of the Oedipus cycle at once has its attractions. Ordinarily, audiences see Oedipus being brought low, in Oedipus Rex, or watch him negotiate his way through a fog of moral ambivalence, in Oedipus at Colonus, or they witness the aftereffects of his struggles as his daughter fights for principle, in Antigone. Almost never do they get to see the entire saga played in sequence, and, not surprisingly, it turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts. The dramatic arc, with its harrowing initial plunge for a father and final soaring epiphany for his daughter, is incontrovertibly impressiveeasier to admire than to be moved by at the Lansburgh, perhaps, but impressive nonetheless.
Emotions aren’t roiling much at the Olney, either, though The Real Thing is generally thought to offer Tom Stoppard at his most vulnerable. The play chronicles the unbending of a linguistically brilliant playwright named Henry (Richard Pilcher) who’s knownas is Stoppardfor his brittle wit. At the start of the action, Henry hides behind words, but as his relationships crumble around him, he learns to express genuine feeling.
As in many of Stoppard’s plays, including this season’s D.C. hits, Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth and The Invention of Love, the playwright is toying with theatricality here, both in the structure and the language. His dialogue leaps from one form of clipped stylization to another as he blends scenes that mimic reality with scenes-within-scenes that inflate it for the stage.
Cheryl Faraone directed the Potomac Theatre Project’s terrific Arcadia last year, so whe knoes her way around Stoppard, but in her thoughtful, naturalistic, decently acted, not terribly fizzy staging, Henry seems just an average guyfussy, yes, but not overly concerned, for instance, about his own diction. So when Stoppard hands the character tirades about the importance of precise expression, they seem to come out of nowhere.
So does the emotion Henry’s meant to feel when he’s finally left speechless by a crucial betrayal. All he can utter when the love of his life walks out the door to meet another man is “Please, please, please, please don’t.” In some productions, that line is devastating. In this one, it’s just a request. CP