- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2001

Dazzling production and acting

A packed theater on a beautiful late-summer Sunday afternoon, when most Americas are watching football, is a merry sight for a theater critic. That everyone was jammed to the rafters to catch more than three hours of Greek tragedy is even more astounding.
But that's the way it was last week at the Shakespeare Theatre, where Artistic Director Michael Kahn has crafted a blazing, immediate production of "The Oedipus Plays" by Sophocles, and has masterfully compressed "Oedipus Rex," "Oedipus at Colonus" and "Antigone" into a single theater experience.
Using a new translation by Nicholas Rudal — which is so plain-speaking at times the shades of humor shine through — and a sun-deepened North African setting and palette, "The Oedipus Plays" are a far cry from the declamatory speeches and togas we normally associate with Greek tragedy.
From the almost dancing colors of Charles McClennahan's rough stone and hammered gold set to the tribal-ritualistic singing and movements of the chorus, this show really flies. The pacing is swift and absolute as the various characters march toward their destinies.
There aren't many moments of contemplation or navel-gazing in the "Oedipus Plays." The characters act boldly and resolutely, not leaving much room for the namby-pamby. One character, a messenger who shilly-shallies about whether or not to deliver some news, is treated as a comic figure of ridicule. Today, he would be thought of as a deep thinker.
For all of its color and swirling movement, there is an air of formality to the production. The royalty are larger-than-life in their broad gestures and aristocratic delivery, a contrast to the chorus, servants and messengers, who spend much of their time kneeling and communicating through sign language.
Avery Brooks plays Oedipus with a rich, rumbly baritone and a swagger befitting a king. He puffs out his chest and has that wide-legged stance suggesting confidence and strength. So sure is Oedipus that he can purge Thebes of the "pollution" that is plaguing his country that he is unstoppable even when the evidence starts stacking up in his direction. He even summons the blind soothsayer, Teiresias (an excellent Earle Hyman), a figure so weirdly terrifying you believe he actually has a pipeline to the immortals.
The hideous thrill about this play is that the audience already knows what Oedipus is so desperate to uncover — that he murdered his father and married his mother, Jocasta (the commanding Petronia Paley). When he gives Jocasta a smoldering, lingering kiss, the audience cannot suppress a gasp.
Incest and patricide have riled the gods and go against natural law, and as Oedipus is led to find out once and for all who he is, the cruel dawning of the truth gives the play a palpable jolt.
Mr. Brooks handles the transition from exalted king to exile with magnificence, clawing at his throat as if the truth is suffocating him, every revelation expressed as a body blow that literally brings him to his knees. After blinding himself and proclaiming himself "the most cursed of men," you don't think you can take anymore, and then his small daughters are brought to him, and he clutches them in his blood-stained hands as they cry out like lambs.
Luckily, we don't have too much time to brood, since we are whisked to Athens for "Oedipus at Colonus." It takes place 30 years later in a sacred grove, where an aged and embittered Oedipus is roaming the Earth with his dutiful daughter Antigone (Cynthia Martells). We know it is a sacred space not only because the chorus mentions it, but because everyone only puts one foot on the ground at a time, so they look like jittery birds the whole time they are there.
Oedipus has determined that this is the place where he is to die ("I am an eternal exile, show me some respect") and Theseus (Johnny Lee Davenport in a strong and affecting performance) behaves accordingly, treating him like the king he once was. Even though he is all hunched over and given to lashing out at anyone within striking distance of his walking stick, Mr. Brooks remains majestic.
He even turns out to be needed, since Thebes is at war and Creon (Michael Genet) and Polyneices (Lance Williams) — Oedipus' son — entreat Oedipus to help lift the curse. He thunders at them like a wrathful god and then staggers off to die. His death scene, as witnessed by Theseus, is enough to scare you into setting up an altar to the ancients, just in case.
"Antigone" is the third play, and Miss Martells combines a regal bearing (she exemplifies having backbone) and gravity as the heroine who defies Creon's order that her brother Polyneices not be buried and given sacred rituals. Mr. Genet was a genial playboy in the first play, who notes that he would rather live like a king than be one. By "Antigone," he is a power-mad creep, petty and vengeful.
The third play ends the cycle on a flat note, which is disappointing since "Antigone" is normally so powerful. Miss Martells does her best to elevate the proceedings, but until the end, there doesn't seem to be much energy or urgency to what is happening.
There is a hole on the stage when Mr. Brooks is not on it, which is unavoidable if you are doing the whole cycle. You cannot really get too enthused about the chorus either, since the Afro-pop music seems at odds with the dance steps, and vice versa. Since the chorus is traditionally supposed to be us, as well as a way for the audience to enter the play, this is a major problem.
"The Oedipus Plays," however, are a worthwhile experience, especially for Mr. Brooks' performance, the stupendous look of the production, and the opportunity to see three classic Greek plays in a single day.

WHAT: "The Oedipus Plays" by Sophocles
WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, through Oct. 21 (Saturday and Sunday matinees are sold out)
TICKETS: $14.50-$63
PHONE: 202/547-1122

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