The Oedipus legend has been around for thousands of years. We all know it, we’ve all read it, we’ve all seen it onstage at least once or twice. A child is born to a royal couple, and a prophecy declares he will kill his father and marry his mother. His parents send him off with a servant to be abandoned on a frigid hillside. The servant takes pity on the babe and gives him to a shepherd who takes him to another city, whose childless king and queen adopt him as their own. When the baby grows to be a man, he learns of the prophecy, and, believing he is the true son of the king and afraid he will kill his father, he flees the city – only to encounter on the road his real father, whom he slays, and whose widow he weds, not knowing she is his mother.
If we’re to believe the experts, the story illustrates one of our deepest-seated fears as a species. I dunno: I don’t recall ever wanting to kill my father, and I liked my mother, but not that much. Yet the myth endures, and productions of Oedipus Rex and the other plays of the “Oedipus trilogy” remain perennial favorites of theatres around the world.
So why do another one now? Well, according to Odyssey Theatre Artistic Director Ron Sossi, who directed the show: “Quite simply because it’s one of the ‘great’ plays I’ve always wanted to do.” Which, in the case of this imaginative and visually striking production, is reason enough.
“Inspired by Ellen McLaughlin’s Oedipus and adapted from the Sophocles text,” Oedipus Machina has been conceived by Mr. Sossi as taking place in “An ancient kingdom – perhaps pre-history.” It’s a strange kingdom indeed. As you enter the theatre, unearthly music plays quietly. A large geodesic dome sits, glowing, on a raised platform. A white orb – the moon? – hangs from the ceiling, and not far from it – also hanging from the ceiling, and sitting in what looks like a leafy swing – is an old woman. Is she asleep? Dead?
Suspended in midair on the other side of the stage is a smaller sphere, this one clear, and containing what looks like the stone head of a Mayan warrior. A rough wooden staircase rises from the floor and hugs the wall around three sides of the stage. And on the ground, undulating lumps of… something.
The opening scene is stunning: as the lights and unearthly sounds morph, the mounds on the floor begin to move. A hand emerges, then another, then bodies – six of them – rise as if from the primordial muck. They face the audience, and they look primitive, almost feral, as they hiss, “Save us! Save us!” The dome rotates, and out of what looks like an interior made up of giant crystals – a Fortress of Solitude? – steps Oedipus (Joshua Wolf Coleman), their king, the savior who liberated them from the tyranny of the Sphinx.
This is no classic-Greek Oedipus. A Black man, with translucent white makeup on his face and shaved head, and dressed in a cream-colored tunic which catches the light and makes him explode against the darkness of the set and the chorus’s rags, he looks remarkably like an Egyptian statue – or an alien god. Mr. Coleman projects a grave dignity as the ruler of the desperate city, and handles gracefully Oedipus’s growing agitation, alarm, and final despair as he realizes he has indeed fulfilled the prophecy he thought he had evaded.
The story of the play remains truthful to the legend, but ambiguity reigns. Is the dome a vessel from another planet? Is the blind seer Tiresias – here played by a female, the old woman in the swing – a god, or perhaps an alien? How else to explain her electronically distorted voice? Is Oedipus’s fate truly an example of divine intervention, or just inordinately bad luck? And what does it mean at the end when the dome rotates like a merry-go-round, with the cruciform body of Jocasta (Dey Young) propped up on one side, and Creon (Martin Rayner) stoically posed, holding his helmet, on the other?
No matter. The imagination displayed in this daringly conceived production trumps all questions – just sit back and let it wash over you. The set by Keith Mitchell, the costumes by Audrey Eisner, the lighting by Phillip W. Powers, the sound by Chris Moscatiello, the props by Katherine S. Hunt, the video by Diana Cignoni, and the makeup by Catelyn Chism are all first-rate, and make invaluable contributions to the overall concept.
There are quibbles, to be sure. While I’m all for comedy in the midst of tragedy, the sketch-comedy approach to one scene is a poor choice. Heavy accents in a few of the chorus members lead to strange inflections and occasional mangling of lines. And, in the end, the overall effect falls short of the epic grandeur which would push this show into don’t-miss-it territory.
No, I take that back. Don’t miss this show. While it may not completely live up to its ambitions, it has ambitions, and that’s a wondrous thing. Brilliantly conceived and directed, it aims for theatrical magic, and comes pretty damn close.
Inspired by Ellen McLaughlin’s Oedipus and adapted from the Sophocles text
Directed by Ron Sossi
Through July 26
2055 S. Sepulveda Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tickets: 310-477-2055 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com