New York — It sounds unlikely, to say the least: a new version of the Sophocles tragedy ''Oedipus at Colonus,'' with the hero played by a gospel singer and the action moved to a black American church.
But it's real. Performances of ''The Gospel at Colonus'' have been given in cities from London and Paris to Minneapolis and Denver, and its latest edition is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Nov. 20.
It's serious, too. In fact, says director Lee Breuer - a veteran of the inventive Mabou Mines troupe - it's his attempt at a whole new kind of classical theater. ''There's theory behind it,'' he explains, adding with typical good humor, ''I actually did some thinking about this.''
Breuer believes that standard English-language theater, based on British diction, doesn't reflect the rhythms and dynamics - or the African and Spanish influences - of American speech. ''Those influences are there,'' he says, ''but they aren't part of the tradition. So we need a new tradition. If I can make one molecule of contribution to that, I'll feel I've really accomplished something.''
It all began with Breuer's feeling that English and American are really different languages. ''I don't understand or like the 'English' language very much, especially when I go to England,'' the American director says.
So he started searching for ''a way to approach classic texts with American rhythms and thinking.'' His goal: to replace the usual English speech patterns, ''which came from the Church of England a couple of hundred years before Shakespeare'' and no longer deserve their near-monopoly status.
But replace these patterns with what? Although he is white, he found an answer in ''the black American church experience,'' where ''there's a whole different idea of speaking classically. It's based on preaching. And that's what 'The Gospel at Colonus' is: a classical text with a preaching rhythm, anti-Shakespearean all the way.''
Breuer knows it's a radical idea, but he thinks Sophocles might have approved. He cites a theory that Greek tragedy ''was originally presented more like a service than a play, with responses from the people. The masks of the actors were really boxes to amplify their words, and the deus ex machina was the appearance of a god in the performance itself. The analogy between theater and church is close. We have a valid intellectual tradition here.''
The new ''Gospel at Colonus'' isn't Breuer's first experiment with ''synthesis and dialectic'' involving different texts and cultural backgrounds. In an outdoor production of ''The Tempest'' for the New York Shakespeare Festival, he made Prospero a movie-style ''godfather'' and Caliban a punk rocker , among other switches. (He agrees with critics, though, that the show never jelled.) In a different vein, his ''Sister Suzie Cinema'' combined speech and ''doo-wop'' music into a nostalgic ''performance poem.''
Despite all the theory and experience Breuer brings to ''The Gospel at Colonus,'' however, is there a danger that audiences will dismiss it as merely exotic - a wayward mixture of elements with no deeper implications?
''Yes, it's very dangerous,'' Breuer agrees. ''That's how people see theater with Eastern influences, and it could happen to 'Gospel,' too. You have to hang in there until the exotic wave passes, and people start looking beyond it. I've been interested for years in black aesthetics, and I've found they brush against popular aesthetics. It opens up an intricate balance between popular response and intellectual response. If you're careful, you can get both.''
Breuer also likes the idea of working with black musical styles. ''White and black music are more separated in the '80s than I've ever known them to be,'' he says sadly. ''I grew up in a tradition where they were pretty integrated, but now white and black musicians don't even talk to each other. It's really racist.''
As a white man dealing with black music and performers, he hopes to strike a blow for reintegration, harking back to ''the kind of romantic, jazz-oriented situation of the '50s.'' Helping the effort is a cast of more than 60 gospel musicians, from Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama to the Institutional Radio Choir of Brooklyn.
Breuer notes that ''Gospel'' takes liberties with the ''Oedipus at Colonus'' text (he ''cut and collaged'' the Robert Fitzgerald translation) and that its score doesn't use existing gospel music, but rather a ''gospel-derived'' score by Bob Telson. He takes liberties with theater norms, too, aiming the show toward a ''filmic'' look.
If his ambitious ''Gospel'' has linguistic, historic, theatrical, musical, and racial dimensions, does it have a religious dimension, too? Yes, says Breuer. ''Sophocles was very old when he wrote it, and he put a lot of himself into it. He identified with Oedipus, who finds his curse lifted and becomes a holy man. Not much happens. The play amounts to a sermon about leaving life happily. I know I'm taking a risk by Christianizing a Greek work that's basically pagan, but I want that aspect to be present. It's a moral sermon.''
In wreaking all his changes on Sophocles, did Breuer have a guiding rule in mind? ''Yes,'' he replies. ''The work has to hold its form as a viable classical text. The production can be explosive, but if it disintegrates the form, I've lost it. That's the big fight: I have these high-powered people and ideas, but if I lose the form, all I have is a gospel concert.''