American audiences have long been overdue for a "Sophoclon" -- that is, a performance of all three Oedipus plays by Sophocles presented in a single marathon session.
According to the CSC Repertory, there has never been one before, but now CSC has filled this gan with splendid new repertory productions of "Oedipus Rex," "Oedipus at Colonus," and "Antigone," in Paul Roche's translations.
I attended the very first Sophoclon the other day, which lasted from about 3 in the afternoon until 10 at night, with substantial intermissions between the plays. Another sophoclon took place Nov. 29, and another will be staged on New Year's Eve. Meanwhile, the plays will be performed individually on alternate evenings through Dec. 31.
Actually, the Oedipus plays date from different periods of Sophocles's career and were not written as a unit. Yet it's no gimmick to link them into a single theatrical experience. Seeing them as a group, one feels the philosophical overviews of the Theban legend, with its rising and falling curve of fate, resignation, and redemption.
Presenting all three works "en masse" also allows the performers new opportunities to explore the development of character from one play to another -- to follow Oedipus from ignorance to exaltation, Antigone from anonymous girlhood to courageous maturity, Creon from amiable courtier to troubled statesman. And the sheer excitement of the trilogy intensifies when it's crammed into a single sitting. Measured in terms of pure dramatic impact, this is a rip-roaring evening in the theater.
Although the brooding "Oedipus Rex" is the most renowed play of the cycle, it is not the easiest to perform.It's a detective story really, and its structure is accordingly regorous. There's leeway for "personal expression" as the actors interpret its harsh metaphors for human frailty, which are tempered by the hero's moral courage in ferreting out grim truths about his nature.
In the CSC production, director Christpher Martin has taken a classical approach, staging the action with a gravity that approaches ritual at times. The plot develops at its own stately pace, with few surprises. At best, the play's ironies leap from the stage with crystal clarity, as when Oedipus wails that his father's murderer might be anywhere in the world -- not realizing that the himself is the guilty one. At worst, moments of keen emotion seem predictable and academic, as when Oedipus howls prosaically with rage and grief at the enormity of his predicament.
The evening gathers momentum as it passes to "Oedipus at Colonus," the most mysterious and transcendent play of the series. Here the trilogy becomes more openingly humanistic as Sophocles deals directly with the relations between Oedipus and his family. And here we encounter suspense of the dramatic as well as the metaphorical variety, as Creon and Theseus contend for power to harm or help the wandering king.
Depending less on psychological powers than on moral and even mystical ones, this is a challenging work to stage and to perform. Martin and the CSC troupe bring unexpected muscle to the story elements of the play, allowing the deeper meanings to emerge naturally and unforced. It's a noteworthy achievement.
Judged by any standard, "Antigone" is one of the masterworks of world theater , and here the CSC Sophoclon reaches its highest level. It's unfortunate that Creon is portrayed more as a stubborn tyrant than as a troubled ruler faced with conflicting claims of state, family, and conscience. But aside from some shallowness in this area, Martin and his colleagues do marvelously well in their approach, dilicately balancing intellectual, emotional, and theatrical values.
There's even some laugh-out-loud humor, provided by a secondary character whose witty portrayal is much needed by this time, in the homestretch of the evening. Antigone herself, and the others wrapped up in her fate, wend their way through the tragic plot with quiet dignity. Haemon makes a particularly striking impact in his bold confrontation with his father, which had the audience gasping on the night I attended.
On my way into the Sophoclon, I ran into director Christopher Martin, who joked that it would be a longer show for the audience than for the actors, since at least the actors can move around. Be that as it may, the cast performed with commendable consistency throughout the long afternoon and evening. Special credit goes to Robert Stattel, whose Oedipus becomes continually more towering through the first two plays; and to Karen Sunde, who plays a very human Jocasta in "Oedipus Rex" and then becomes a moving Antigone for the rest of the show.
Eric Tavaris is the self-willed Creon, Martin himself is the bedraggled Tiresais and Tom Spiller is the hilarious Sentry of the "Antigone." The chorus hits a rhythmic middle ground between choral and individual speech under Martin's direction, and chorus member Jonathon Bolt stands out as the climactic Messenger of all three plays
Terry A. Bennett's production design moves from stately rigor for "Oedipus Rex" to airy spaciousness for "Oedipus of Colonus," shifting abruptly in the "Antigone" to a war-torn setting lit with flourescence and clothed in steel. The other production values, from music to costumes, are first-rate, as is the translation by Paul Roche, though it relies a bit too much on ready-made phrases.