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Tuesday, 12 October 2010 01:00

Upstream's Oedipus King is simple and subtle but lacks poetry

Written by Robert Strasser
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Upstream's Oedipus King is simple and subtle but lacks poetry

Upstream's new production of Oedipus King is an intimate affair. The 70 seat Kranzberg black box is a far cry from a Greek amphitheater, but Philip Boehm has taken this change of venue and directed a simple and subtle production of the venerable Greek tragedy.

In Sophocles's two thousand year old play, the city of Thebes is cursed with infertility. The women bare no children, and the land grows no crops. A messenger returns with an edict from Apollo. Thebes will be cursed until the killer of Laius, the former king, can be found. Thus starts King Oedipus's investigation into a past better left forgotten, and the discovery that a horrible prophecy has come true.

This being Greek theater, I didn't expect a lot of action or stage business. The Greeks are not known for their knife fights. True to form the characters mostly stood on stage and talked. With so little physical action, I'm not sure the choice of an introspective Oedipus was the right one. J. Samuel Davis plays the king as a man who thinks before he acts. I would have liked to see more of the Oedipus who doesn't yield the road to prissy strangers interwoven into Davis's Hamletesque performance.

I haven't read Oedipus since the 10th grade, and for whatever reason, I expected to hear more formal language. David Slavitt's translation is an uneven mix of high and low language. There were times when I was pulled out of the action by the translators word choice. This might just be my problem. When I think of old plays, I immediately think iambic pentameter.

I liked the set by Michael Heil. It was as simple as a penny. It did its job of invoking ancient Thebes and getting out of the way of the actors. The stage is round with a scene of Oedipus's encounter with the Spinx painted on it. It is tiny even by black box standards.

I also liked the no-togas approach by costume designer LaLonnie Lehman. The royal family was dressed in contemporary elegance while the chorus and shepherds had a more tribal look.

Over all, I left the theater feeling as if I missed something vital Mr. Boehm was going for, and if I could just figure out what I missed the production would have a whole new vitality to it.

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