Staging the classics in Brooklyn
New York — Oedious the King, Tragedy by Sophocles. New version by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay for BAM Theater company. Whatever else might be said about individual productions, the BAM Theatre Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music has traversed a lot of varied terrain this season, hewing to classical paths with admirable tenacity.
Their version of "A Midsummer-Night's Dream" seemed tacky at times, their "Recruiting Officer" rambled a bit, their "Wild Duck" was inconsistently performed, and their "Jungle of Cities" didn't cohere.
Along with "Oedipus the King" though, these compose a remarkably hefty season -- proof that actors and audiences can still confront great dramatic works and themes intelligently, if not as compellingly as one might wish. The road has had ups and downs, but the trip has been well worth the taking.
Flaws and all, BAM deserves a salute. The uneven production of "Oedipus" that rounded off its ambitious season was trounced by some critics. But it had significant virtues: It was strongly felt, occasionally elegant, and crystal clear in its words and gestures.
Like the rest of the BAM season, it made bad choices and lapsed into plain foolishness at times. Still, it had a weight -- a presence -- that I prefer to much of the slick but utterly forgettable stuff flung at us by less energetic troupes.
Joe Morton made a regal Oedipus whose kingly bearing makes his plight all the more moving. Aristotle would have been pleased. Ben Halley Jr. was fervently mystical as the priest, Michael Gross looked just right as the wizened Teiresias , and Randle Mell brought passionate intensity to his brief but crucial role as the messenger of royal death. Ming Cho Lee designed the splendidly spare setting.
The production had plenty of failings, to be sure. Jocasta looked too young, some secondary characters laced personality, and the chorus leader never found the rhythm of the show. Some whole sequences seemed to have drifted in from another theater, as when the priest started praying, and director Emily Mann had the chorus break into song, like leftovers from some 1930s movie about hard times on the plantation.
Yet even this episode had quite an impact on its own terms, if you suspended disbelief a bit more than usual and forgopt what Sophocles might have thought of such a lurch.Though the BAM conception of 'Oedipus' is a thing of bits and pieces, the power of its emotions and its language -- abetted by its central performance -- carried it through.
The recent BAM production of Bertolt Brecht's "Jungle of Cities," found the author in a Kafka sort of mood. At the beginning, a young man is challenged to combat -- psychological, moral, financial -- by a mysterious foreigner. Accepting the challenge, he finds himself locked with his adversary in a dance of death that goes on for years. His family, his possessions, even his existence become pawns in the bizarre struggle.
The dark absurdism of this idea seems ruefully modern, as did the sleazy settings of the production. It's a complicated work, with everything on its mind from history and "class struggle" to plain old sex and skulduggery.
Yet it seems to ramble, bogging down for whole scenes of tortured noncommunication among the many characters. And it's too schematic, too contrived, to be genuinely moving. We see Brecht hammering bravely at his task: to concoct a play about a "meaningful fight" -- one that "proves something" -- or at least to show how hardm it is to call such a thing into being. All he arrives at, though, is a sure-enough "jungle" of murky mentalities and egregious emotions. It's not a very stimulating place to visit.
The BAM Theater Company plunged into the fray with eyes wide open, bolstering much of the action with its own high energy. It was a sturdy production, but it couldn't lift its second-class material to the bright heights of a "Galileo" or "Caucasian Chalk Circle," to mention just a couple of far more worthy Brecht vehicles.
"Jungle of Cities" burst onto the stage with all the grim fanfare of Berg's "Lulu" -- there was even a similar "step right up and see the sad sights" introduction -- and then paid off with an unspectacular excursion into territory that wasn't worth much exploring. Thanks to BAM for giving us another lo ok at it. But no thanks for the memories.