In classic Greek tragedy fashion, our central character Oedipus hears that he is fated to kill his father and wed his mother, so he leaves his home in Corinth to prevent the prophecy from coming true. He becomes King of Thebes and marries Jocasta after solving the riddle of the Sphinx. When our play begins, Oedipus learns that Thebes suffers from a great plague because it’s former king, and Jocasta’s former husband, Laius, has been murdered and the murderer remains unpunished. Oedipus vows to find and punish the kingslayer. As the play unfolds, the audience sees Oedipus search for the truth and watches in horror and disgust and he finds it Oedipus The King, the classic of ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles, tells the story of haunting prophecies and the futile efforts taken to resist them.
The Midland Center for the Arts production, beautifully directed by Annette Thornton, boasts strong acting and wonderful technical elements that results in an intimate show that keeps the audience invested in the action onstage. The sense of connection starts with Thornton’s decision to stage the play in the round with audience members on all sides. The sense of the world closed, and closing in on Oedipus, adds tension to the story. Each technical element of the play, from lighting to costumes to sound, creates the foreboding atmosphere that aids the audience on its journey to the play’s troubling conclusion.
Another effective choice was to use masks for all actors. The earthen and worn masks contribute to a striking visual. The masks cover the actors eyes, talking away one source of emotional expression upon which actors often rely. However, most actors succeed in using the mask to enhance their characters.
Donald Owens III as Oedipus creates a commanding presence very early on and is at his best when that commanding presence covers his insecurity and pride. His defiance of the prophecy when confronted by Tiresias demonstrates Owens’ strength, mixing ego with authority. Another moment that stands out is when Owens lets the flood of memories flashback to fifteen years prior when “three roads meet.” Owens’ speech towards the end begging for exile is a long speech and could benefit from added layers or depth. A strong performance, though.
The omnipresent Chorus of Theban elders acts as the other primary character in the play. Ever observing and providing a voice for the people: Nick Alfano, Caroline Jasin, Joel Linguar, Joannah Lodico, and Claudia Marsh work well with stylized movements functioning as one unit. Their movement and vocal choices add to the sense of unity. They crawl and reach and condemn as one. They provide a compelling image to end the play.
Isiah Barnes provides a standout, if brief, performance as the blind prophet Tiresias. Barnes’ movements and emotional balance provide a strength that can match Oedipus. The two go toe-to-toe over who is the rightful killer of Laius, with Barnes declaring truth and Owens believing Tiresias to be part of the conspiracy to kill the king. Barnes gives that needed counter to Owens’ pride.
Hannah Nelson also gives a strong performance as the regal and measured Jocasta. She succeeds the most in the difficult task of acting through her mask rather than acting behind it. When she stands on the central platform with crying pleas to Apollo, she uses her mask to show, rather than hide, her desperation. When the truth is finally revealed, my eyes we drawn to Jocasta withering in horror as she realizes her sins before Oedipus, or any other character, realizes.
Isaac Haviland brings strength to Jocasta’s brother, and eventual king, Creon. Nicholas Edward Pellegrino IV pulls double duty as the Priest of Zeus and, more memorably, as the Shepherd of Laius. Shawn M. Finney gives the audience a strong and enjoyable performance as the Messenger from Corinth. And LeVale Walker has a solemn and compelling moment towards the end as the attendant to the Queen as he mourns the loss of Jocasta.
While the strong acting performances drive the show, the production really shines in its technical elements. The set from scenic designer Adam Niemiec is a simple platform in the middle of the audience adorned with fabric and a small pile of cotton stalk stems. The four corners of the space house elements of classic Greek architecture. The simple set design ensures both form and function - a beautiful playing space that allows every audience member to see the entire show. I love Tom Randolph’s sound design. Consisting primarily of tones, rings, and percussive elements, the design highlights the tense and foreboding atmosphere of the play. The costumes and mask design of Gina Love provides a beautifully ornate design.. My favorite may have been the least detailed, though, as the Suppliants’ rags contrasted nicely with the costumes of the Chorus, Oedipus, Jocasta, and Creon. One quibble with costumes is that actors often had to fiddle with them in their movements, particularly the chorus. The lighting from designer Peter Ford helped to create the atmosphere with striking visuals. His shifts from light to dark create stunning shadows giving clues to the coming dread. Flashes of red also give the sense of danger in critical moments.
One note worth mentioning; the play runs an hour and a half without intermission. Towards the end, especially during Oedipus’ long closing speech, I saw audience members fidgeting and squirming. Make sure you hit the bathroom before the show.
First performed in 429 BCE, Oedipus The King stands as the standard of Greek tragedy. Thornton with her cast and crew create a production that serve the tension and angst of tragedy in an effective and relatable way. While a couple moments may drag, the acting and design provide a complete theatrical experience that demands attention. Oedipus The King runs through next weekend.
Center Stage Theatre’s production of Oedipus the King will be on stage at Midland Center for the Arts Feb. 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m.; and Feb. 18 and 25 at 3 p.m.
Tickets are $20 for adults and $16 for students and are available at http://www.mcfta.org/event/oedipus-the-king-2/e24244/, at the Center Ticket Office or by calling 800-523-7649.