Two Tragic Takes, Part One: Oedipus

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oedipus-hypocrites.jpgAs most of my friends can attest, I love overwrought, from Almodovar to Bizet, Bette Davies to Dalida.  And what can be more overwrought than Greek tragedy, with its ridiculous twists of fate, and all types of mayhem from incest to murder to self-mutilation to sexual outrageousness?  I think the most memorable contemporary productions of Greek tragedies that I have seen are the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously, that embrace the over-the-top nature of the tale, but at the same time preserve the inherent insights on human fallibility and the role of destiny and circumstance (one of my favorite productions, for example, was the New York production of Sophocles’ Electra several years back in which  Zoe Wanamaker as Electra and high-heel wearing Claire Bloom as Clytemnestra performed in a gigantic sand pit, a theatrical device both riveting and inane).  So I was very excited to see The Hypocrites and its Artistic Director Sean Graney’s take on Sophocles’ Oedipus since if there was going to be a group in Chicago who’ll redefine Greek-style outré, it’d be them.  

Of course, I expected the Hypocrites to dial Oedipus up a notch (which launches it into the stratosphere of the semi-insane, and that’s a compliment).  It’s an abbreviated, modern dress, urban dictionary-using take on the play, which will infuriate purists but will delight those up for surprising theater.  Graney directs the play in his trademark promenade-style staging with the audience walking around the performance space and mingling with the three actors playing all the characters.  Graney usually demands a lot from both audience and actors, but the difficulty factor for both are increased in this production (from, say, his Edward II last year) by having most of the action performed running around and crossing benches and elevated spaces.  Halena Kays and Stacy Stoltz, Chicago actors whom I have never seen give a bad performance, play multiple roles exceptionally well, but this show belongs, as it should, to Steve Wilson as a boy-next-door, slightly-goofy, untraditionally affable Oedipus.  I think Wilson’s excellent take makes Oedipus’ disbelieving realization that he indeed murdered his father and married his mother more heartbreaking.  His final breakdown inside a combo spaceship/Mexican piñata, being pummeled with trash bags, is a compelling piece of theater. 

So let’s talk about that spaceship piñata and the rest of Oedipus’ set design on hallucinogens.  I like a lot of it – the use of litter all over the performance space and the trash-filled sphere (like a beach ball made of plastic bottles and cups) works on multiple levels:  making this Greek royal family and its repulsive secrets the equivalent of Jerry Springer’s trashy guests; also, as my friend Jason said, there’s an artistic statement about making great art out of what is essentially a trashy premise, a wink-wink quality I appreciate.  I like the use of different types of stereo units (including a show-stopping reindeer-shaped stereo) to blare Kevin O’Donnell’s wailing, punk-rocky, totally apt original musical score.  I really like the fact that the hanging dresses ultimately represent Oedipus’ daughters. But the spaceship-piñata?  The vaguely Mexican-inspired masks that seem to be randomly donned by the actors?  The dilapidated washer and dryer?  The filing cabinet (other than providing the stapler for some The Wrestler-type violence)?  I really wanted more design cohesion.  At some points I wondered why the small performance space looked like a junk shop. 

But more than the design, I think I don’t really embrace this version of Oedipus as much as I want to because I’m perplexed by Graney’s decision to inject humor into the proceedings.  Instead of the goofy, Saturday-night-at-a-bar type humor that is mixed in like peach swirl in a scoop of rocky road ice cream up to the middle of this 55-minute play,  I would have preferred campy, over-the-top humor.  In my opinion, that sensibility goes much better with the intention of making the utter ridiculousness of the play’s premise more accessible.  The humor in this version of Oedipus is really jarring as the tragedy becomes more heightened in the second half of the play.  I feel that the audience isn’t sufficiently prepared for the tragic moments and thus isn’t able to fully engage and appreciate them.  I know it’s a brave risk that Graney took (and hey, I will always applaud his risk-taking) but instead of a royal flush (as his experiments often end up to be), I think this is more of a three of a kind.

You can see that reindeer stereo and the rest of Oedipus at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter St., until July 12.

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2 Responses to “Two Tragic Takes, Part One: Oedipus”

  1. Paul Rekk Says:

    I think I may have stopped trying to find cohesion in many of Graney’s choices (which I don’t mean as an insult to him at all), but the masks and the port-a-potty set piece seemed to me to be more influenced by Pacific Northwest/Native American culture than Mexican. Something worth considering if you are still trying to put pieces together.

  2. francis Says:

    HI Paul. You may be right; good insight there. Thanks.

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