Greek tragedy is often treated as pure drama, but the surviving plays are only a template for a multi-layered theatrical event. The researchers speculated that the texts might be closer to the librettos for an opera experience that is as intellectual as it is emotional – and therefore difficult to imagine accurately.
For me, Greek tragedy in interpretation is most satisfying when it approaches the intensity of a mass. What Sophocles makes possible in “Oedipus the King,” the cornerstone drama of the Western canon, is a communal meditation on some of the deepest mysteries of the human condition.
Oedipus, paragon of problem solvers, discovers at the end of the play the limits of his own keen intellect. As he tries to get ahead of his fate, he learns that he is part of a purpose beyond his comprehension. But it is as a victim of fate that he finds the freedom to take courageous responsibility for acts committed in ignorance.
Objectively guilty of having killed his father and of having married and had children with his mother, he knows that he has become an outcast for all humanity. Nothing can lessen the horror of the acts he has spent his adult life trying to avoid. Yet, by accepting his suffering, he leaves an image of terrifying and sacrificial nobility, a figure of blind humanity assuming the shame and error of his life.
A new version of Oedipus, adapted and directed by Jenny Koons at Getty Villa’s Outdoor Theater, tells the story in a theatrical way which combines American Sign Language and spoken English. A collaboration with Deaf West Theatre, the production never lets audiences forget that the tragedy is greater than the sum of its dialogue.
Gesture and movement express the passion and fury underlying the lyrics of the piece. Andrew Morrill and Alexandria Wailes adapted the play in American Sign Language, but it’s the actors’ artistry that heightens the effect of universal physical communication.
Yee Eun Nam’s video projections extend the discreet lyrical dynamism of Tanya Orellana’s scenography and Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting. The mix of music and sound design by Peter Bayne operates almost subliminally. Jojo Siu’s costumes, both modern and timeless, reinforce the impression that the play takes place in a now classic.
Initially, the staging seems closer to dance than drama. But those familiar with Deaf West (perhaps of the LA-based company’s two biggest hits, ‘Big River’ and ‘Spring Awakening’) will recognize the acting model of having a role signed and seamlessly spoken by separate actors.
Some choir members are more eloquent when they are not speaking. The obviousness of dramatic intonation can detract from the abstract aesthetic that Koons scrupulously achieves. I preferred the production in its dispassionate mode. Of course, Oedipus is a passionate drama, regularly erupting in fury and ending in agony. But emotion is most powerful when held in the grip of controlling or fearful human minds.
Russell Harvard’s Oedipus is tyrannical without being understood as such. Stubborn, impatient, and quick to condemn, he struts around with an arrogance he believes is entirely justifiable. He attained royalty after solving the riddle of the Sphinx. After saving Thebes from one plague, he is eager to prove his superiority again by saving it from another.
It only remains for him to find the assassin of Laius, the former king he replaced both on the throne and in the bed of Queen Jocasta. Never having encountered a riddle he couldn’t answer, he won’t stop until he discovers his own identity.
Harvard wears an unfortunate crown that looks like something a kid might wear in a school play. Perhaps the point is the fragility of these royal symbols, but the toy cornet robs Harvard’s Oedipus of some dignity. Still, the star quality this seasoned entertainer brings is impossible to deny.
Matthew Jaeger, who plays the role of Oedipus’ adviser and follows the protagonist, enjoys appropriate gravity. His close interaction with Harvard’s Oedipus helps embody the tragic journey. Harvard would sometimes benefit from more restraint, but he travels fearlessly to the very edge of the Oedipus saga.
The production’s grip on our attention tightens as the story unfolds. This is credited both to the miracle of dramatic construction that is Sophocles’ play and to the bold originality of some of the characterizations.
Tiresias is recreated by Ashlea Hayes as a black woman who has long had to endure blind privilege and the height of those who see less than they can know. Creon is vibrantly transformed by Jon Wolfe Nelson into a Beverly Hills aristocrat, a little superficial perhaps but able to hold his own when Oedipus turns against him. Jocasta de Wailes, a sensual royal matron, would rather her husband stop digging into truths she increasingly suspects are exposing the cracked foundations of their marriage.
This version of “Oedipus,” based on a translation of “Oedipus the King” by Ian Johnston, softens a bit at the end. A sentimentality foreign to Sophocles makes a brief but notable appearance. But the power of a play that answers few questions but leaves us full of weighty thoughts is reborn in a way perhaps closer to the theatricality of the Ancients than more academic revivals.
Where: Getty Villa, Outdoor Theater, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades
When: 8 p.m. from Thursday to Saturday. Ends October 1
Information: (310) 440-7300 or tinyurl.com/OedipusGettyVilla
Operating time: 1h30