OGDEN — “The truth is the truth because it is the truth.” Or so declares Tiresias, the blind prophet of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex who serves as the narrator in this darkly comic twist on a Grecian text. Weber State’s production of this absorbing dark comedy by Ali Salim, directed by Jennifer Kokai, is a fascinating examination of the role of fear and the cost of freedom.
While the titular Oedipus is the protagonist of the Sophocles’ story, Salim’s script instead centers on the collective people of Thebes, who act as the principal character of the story. As the story begins, they are paralyzed by the arrival of a monstrous sphinx that has blocked all trade into the city and condemned them to a slow death by starvation. Tiresias, played by Terry McArthur, calls upon the people to confront the sphinx themselves, and warns them of impending doom if they do not. His pleas fall on deaf ears, and the people turn to Oedipus, an idealistic outsider, to face the monster in their place. Oedipus (Connor Padilla) defeats the creature (or at least appears to) and is handed the throne, the queen, and worshipped as a descendant of the Gods.
It is from this point that the piece gains real traction. After a brief intermission, the audience returns to find a transformed, modern Thebes. Oedipus introduces technology that moves Thebes 5000 years into the future, enabling them with cell phones, stereos, and electricity. However, unbeknownst to Oedipus, a shadow is cast over what he perceives as his benevolent leadership. Scientists and teachers perpetuate myths about his divine origin that he tries denying, and the Chief of Police Awalih (Shelby Anderson) forcibly suppresses anyone asking questions about how Oedipus achieved his victory over the sphinx. Oedipus unwittingly finds himself at the head of a police state, ruling over a fearful people unable to speak out or take any action that would appear out of the line with the ruling policy. Oedipus, and the people he rules, soon learn the surrendering liberty for the lack of courage comes with a heavy cost.
Padilla makes an endearing Oedipus, giving him a strength and sincerity that are line with the character. He could have mined some deeper emotions and gone further with his downfall at the end of the piece, but his performance was mostly solid. Shelby Anderson brought a nice intensity to the sly police chief Awalih. Becca Lichfield as Jocasta was the most successful in her mastery of the language, adding a contemporary flair and mannerisms to what could have been a flat and boring character. Zakk Burdick shone in his portrayal of Creon, creating a fiercely loyal character with graceful movement that spoke to his career as a professional soldier and swordsman.
The ensemble, in spite of being onstage most of the time, felt underutilized. That is not to say they were poorly staged; Kokai creates some compelling stage pictures, particularly in the second half of the show as she showcases their addiction to technology, but many of their reactions felt forced and staged. There were some highlights, including the musical number “You’re the One Who Killed the Beast,” which featured some excellent vocals by Luke Monday and Jenessa Bowen, yet the opening scene and a climactic battle seemed rushed. Terry MacArthur also struggled as Tiresias, fumbling lines and speaking in a detached, rambling voice. Perhaps a few more nights will help MacArthur polish his performance.
In spite of having many talented performers, the production struggled with the style of Salim’s script. The first act in particular seemed ripe with potential for comic moments, but aside from some tossed limbs after the first sphinx attack, few laughs managed to land. This was in partially due to the way in which the cast approached the words, speaking quirky contemporary phrases with an odd classicism that seemed more appropriate to Shakespeare than this piece. They ignored the absurdity and instead gave thoroughly traditional performances that, while not bad, failed to capture the fascinating nuance of the piece. Finding those comedic moments in the first act would have made the darker twists in the latter half of the show that much more powerful, and Tiresias’s closing words “ “You may have found some occasion to laugh, but that was not my intention” would have rang like a condemnation, instead of a hollow statement.
This lack of stylistic mastery was especially apparent when contrasted with the extremely successful design elements that progressed seamlessly from an ancient to modern Thebes. Austin Hull’s pyramid and sand set design immersed the audience in the world of the play. Projections, designed by Alex Thedell, offered ironic commentary, and bridged the gap between acts. The first break featured a reel of hysterical, Egyptian themed cartoons that provided the best entertainment of the night, while the second break contained a powerful series of slides narrating the Egyptian internet revolution of 2011. Musical underscoring (Rick Rea) progressed from simple, percussive music to Egyptian themed rock. And finally, the costume design by Kelsey Nichols was the highlight of the night, shifting from a rich tapestry of warm desert colors to an astonishing line of haute couture outfits in black, white, and gold. Each piece was more unique than the last, effortlessly blending our notions of Egyptian style with futuristic fashion into stunning, architectural pieces that would not have looked out of place on a New York runway.
While this production was far from perfect, the Comedy of Oedipus succeeded in delivering an important message about fear and its impact on social order. In an age of the internet and social media, we have the power to take collective action and improve the world around us, or act as passive observers as others attempt to solve our problems. If you are looking for an intelligent, thought-provoking piece of theater, The Comedy of Oedipus might just be the right choice for you.