Aristotle considered Oedipus Rex the model for tragedy, claiming that any “person who hears the events that take place shivers and feels pity at what happens – as anyone would do who heard the story of Oedipus.” It is a description of an audience experience that still rings true after seeing Broken Gears Project Theatre’s powerful and chilling update of the classic work.
Steven Young directs Oedipus the King, a faithful sounding, yet fresh adaptation of Sophocles’ play about, among other things, the quest for self-knowledge, of free will, ‘Fate,’ and of the tenuous nature of good fortune. Young has crafted a complete and exciting vision that almost, but not quite finds its perfect mark. The look of the play (with sets by Jeffrey Franks) is balanced, symmetrical, and formalized, perhaps to remind us of its classical roots. However, the pace is a tad lugubrious in the second half. If they could tighten up some of that timing they could really add to what is already an amazing spectacle that’s not just for the classical literature set.
The familiar story concerns the titular king’s attempts to alleviate the plague in Thebes caused by the unsolved murder of the former king, Laius. Unbeknownst to Oedipus (David Jeremiah, recently in a harrowing performance in Rite of Passage’s Technically Related), Laius was his father, and he the murderer, not to mention husband of the widowed queen, Jocasta (Lulu Ward) who is also the new king’s mother.
As titillating and dreadful as all of that sounds, the play is not about the action of Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother; that has already happened by the play’s start. Rather, Sophocles sets his play around the horrific realization of those deeds, masterfully creating dramatic irony by allowing the audience possession of facts hidden from the protagonists, stirring up uncomfortable questions with even more uncomfortable answers. All of this turns on the paradoxical “man of havoc,” Oedipus, who is both blessed and cursed.
Franks utilizes a thrust performance area with a stylized painted floor, marble-type riser with a business throne, and projected images on a screen in the back for full near-futuristic effect. Jeremiah plays the Theban king with a sturdy presence and a sonorous voice, which he uses as a precise instrument of great variation – from a commanding whisper to a troubled growl. His eventual descent into terrible grief and madness is a visceral, and arresting feat. Ward’s Jocasta is queenly in a sultry Lady Macbeth manner, simmering and dripping with every move and loaded speech.
The rest of the cast delivers stalwart, well-directed performances of their roles. Of special note though is Tiresias (Joel Frapart), the blind seer of Apollo who holds the awful truths of the play. Frapart plays him like a mad, wheelchair-bound homeless man with a scratchy voice – something like Tom Waits as a reluctant prophet.