SUMMER THEATER. Would Sophocles recognize Williamstown's version of `Oedipus'?
Williamstown, Mass. — In the program notes for ``The Legend of Oedipus,'' the world premi`ere season opener at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, there is a handy timeline of the royal family of Thebes. Forget it. Thanks to Nikos Psacharopoulos's direction, which is scrupulous to the point of heavyhandedness, you don't remotely need it for this reworked, condensed, illustrated guide to the Greek myth.
This five-hour, two-part adaptation by Kenneth Cavander (who reworked the Trojan plays some years back) strips the mystery and ambiguity - not to mention poetry - from the original Oedipal plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes.
What remains of the ancient myth - the story of a man who kills his father and marries his mother - is not the rich, brooding primal saga that fascinated Hegel and Freud, among others, but a galloping, linear narrative (Cavander straightens out the plays' inconsistencies with some liberties of his own) - a sort of ``Oedipus...Just the High Points.''
It is not that the production has a prime-time-TV feel to it, although there is enough family rivalry, backstabbing, and internecine warfare to put a gleam in the eyes of NBC's Brandon Tartikoff. Rather, Cavander's translation sustains all the complexity and sophistication of Cliff Notes. Not only is the text lacking in mythical and psychological reverberations, but Psacharopoulos's direction only compounds the production's play-by-play feel.
To be sure, ``The Legend of Oedipus'' is an ambitious undertaking by Williamstown, a summer company whose better-than-average reputation has been cultivated by Psacharopoulos's canny programming of straight-arrow classics staged with a glittery mini-series worth of talent. And this two-part mini-marathon does tap into the current cultural mania for mega-theater. But worthy motives asides, there are problems in ``The Legend of Oedipus'' at nearly every level. Tuxedoed deities
If Cavander's text gives short shrift to the plays' original lyricism and leaves dangling many character motivations (although much happens offstage in the Sophocles original), what the author has supplied - in droves - is onstage narrators. In addition to the chorus, there is a brace of tuxedoed deities, disheveled Dionysos and the preppy Apollo discussing in cocktail-party chatter the finer points of men's will versus God's will; an omnipresent storyteller; and the village elder who, at play's end, reiterates all that we just witnessed. It's a ``Monday Night Football'' recap.
Additional difficulties are presented by John Conklin's set, which is massive and clunky without being particularly epochal.
The raked stage and carved pit function as a dizzying series of locales - Thebes to Athens to Delphi - shifts which are not always discernable when indicated by the rotating totemic apparitions which appear behind the giant sliding doors: the writhing Delphic oracle, the Oz-like sphinx.
Pscharapoulos's direction, short on nuance and subtlety, only adds to the visual bombast. He's cranked up this production to Stephen Spielberg intensity - dry-ice smoke, thunder claps, flashing lights, and acting that tends toward the overly histrionic or the obvious.
Joe Morton, who was fine in the John Sayles film ``Brother from Another Planet,'' is stretched almost to the breaking point as Oedipus. He's a chest-thumping gospel preacher, not a tragic hero who gains insight from his blindness.
Joan Van Ark, of TV's ``Knots Landing'' fame, is simply out of her depth as Jocasta. Strong performance as Creon
What works? Daniel Davis's Creon is a clear standout, ably capturing the moral man beset by ambition. And George Morfogen provides a welcome measure of calm and self-reflection as the seer Teiresisas.
His advice to the fallen Creon - ``I will teach you to be a man, poor, unadorned, humble'' - says more about the human condition than all the smoke and mirrors of this production. At Williamstown through July 9th.