SALT LAKE CITY — At the end of Westminster College’s production of Oedipus the King, a chorus of nine actors sang the haunting words, “Call no man happy until that person dies free from sorrow.” In other words, no matter how prosperous a person seems to be, until death it is always possible that a single tragedy could wipe out his happiness.
Oedipus the King is an ancient Greek tragedy about the king of Thebes, a great city which has been beset by tragedy. When Creon (Oedipus’s brother-in-law, played by Michael Calacino) returns from the oracle at Delphi, he explains that the gods have said through an oracle that the previous king’s murderer is in Thebes and must be executed in order for Thebes to find peace again. Written by Sophocles, it is probably the most famous surviving Greek tragedy and has political and personal themes that resonate today. Presented by the Classical Ancient Greek Theatre Festival, this production will be touring Utah this month, bringing some of the world’s oldest drama to local audiences.
Dominating the production is Ryon Sharette as Oedipus. Sharette had a characteristic that I look for in an actor playing a king: dignity. Sharette’s characterization of Oedipus started the play at the apex of his power and esteem. This made his eventual downfall more tragic and emphasized the ephemeral nature of wealth and power. Sharette was at his best when interacting with the other male characters in the play: Oedipus’s battle of wills with the blind priest (Nikola Muckajev) was a highlight of the play, and the confrontation with Creon provided enough dramatic tension to keep my interest for the middle section of the play.
I wasn’t as interested in Elizabeth Summerhays‘s performance as Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife. For the most part, Summerhays displayed a very limited range of emotion and reactions that were so subtle that many were lost to me, even though I was only sitting on the third row. This made it feel like Summerhays didn’t give Sharette a lot to work with, giving their scenes together a similar tone to those of Oedipus’s monologues (of which there are already plenty in the script). Summerhays did much to redeem herself in her final moments as Jocasta, but overall I wish that the only female character in the play had been more interesting.
However, Muchajev’s portrayal of the priest was fascinating because of the strong personality that Calacino gave his character. Calacino correctly understood that the priest, because of the supernatural understanding of the world, could provide the first challenge to Oedipus’s hubris. Calacino showed this through a commanding voice, and the product of his performance was a strong setup of the play’s central conflict.
Director Sandra Shotwell’s goal with this production was to create a play that would be faithful to the conventions of ancient Greek theatre and show the audience why Oedipus the King is so revered in Western culture. In this she largely succeeded. Although some aspects of ancient Greek theatre (like the masks) are missing, the important pieces are there: the chorus, the limited number of speaking characters on stage at once, the direct addresses to the audience, and more. Thanks to Shotwell’s direction (and Marianne McDonald‘s clear translation of the script), a background in theatre history or the text of the play is not necessary to understand this production.
The major downside with Shotwell’s directorial choices is that faithfulness to ancient Greek theatrical conventions makes the production less accessible to modern audiences. Those who may have attended last year’s production of Antigone were given a more accessible production set in modern times with contemporary costuming, props, and music that all combined to make the script relevant to today. By maintaining fidelity to ancient Greek performance tradition, Shotwell has created a work that is much closer to a museum piece than last year’s Antigone and therefore difficult for modern audiences to relate to. However, the chorus was the major saving grace in making the production accessible. The nine actors—in excellent Greek fashion—effectively told the audience how to feel, what to think, and provided helpful commentary on the action. While their songs sometimes went on too long (and the choreography by Solange Gomes was understated by modern musical theatre standards), the chorus of Oedipus the King was an ideal example of what an ancient Greek chorus should be.
The emphasis of this production is on Sophocles’s 2400-year-old script, so the technical elements are pretty sparse (and some, like the lighting won’t even be present in performances at some of their other locations). Valerie Nishiguchi‘s costumes were most prominent, and all of them delineated social class of characters well and were functional enough for the chorus actors to easily dance in. Moreover, Nishiguchi wisely eschewed stereotypical Greek togas (as seen in the Festival’s Iphigenia in Tauris two years ago) and instead provided a wide variety of robes, tunics, and other costume pieces that seemed more realistic. The music (composed by Cathy Neff and performed by oboist Hilary Coon) was pleasing and never strayed into the realm of tunelessness (again, unlike Iphigenia in Tauris) or repetitiveness. I also appreciated the abstract makeup design (with an uncredited designer), which included a genuinely gruesome Oedipus at the end of the play.
Overall, though, Oedipus the King is a production that I would recommend to students and others interested in ancient Greek theatre and seeing a culturally influential play. However, the play has its boring moments that arise from the 2,400-year gulf between modern American and ancient Greece—a difference in cultures that may be too difficult to overcome. But for some people it will be worth the challenge to attend Oedipus the King, and this play, unlike its title character, certainly has no fatal flaws that should keep anyone away from it.