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Eyes Wide Shut

American Playwright Refashions a Classic Greek Tragedy

ALL IN THE FAMILY: Cheri Weinert's Jocasta and Marc Horwitz' Oedipus share genes, bed.

By John Barry | Posted 5/28/2008


By Sophocles; new version by Ellen McLaughlin

At Performance Workshop Theatre through June 1; Feature story by Geoffrey Himes

Maybe it was just that Mothers' Day was looming, but it seemed that this Performance Workshop Theatre production finally gave the female lead a little more of a voice in this bleak take of motherhood. Ellen McLaughlin's version of Sophocles' Oedipus neither takes liberties with the original nor makes outright feminist gestures, but she does remind us what Oedipus' trials must have looked like from his mother's perspective. What it comes out is, oddly, a less visceral, more philosophic approach to the Theban king's troubles.

"Ignorance was your only hope," Jocasta (Cheri Weinert) tells her son Oedipus (Marc Horwitz), as he starts opening a can of worms that he'll never be able to close. Throughout this version, we're forced to watch him-- along with the regal, almost statuesque Jocasta--melt into a whimpering, lost child. It isn't a pleasant process, but the crowning moment--the plunging out of the eyes--is less cathartic and almost an afterthought. What really destroys Oedipus is his attempt to discover where he's been and where he's going.

Director Marlyn Robinson's low-key approach keeps the focus on the script. Costume designer Kendra Rai adheres closely to the conventions of Greek tragedy: Oedipus gets the headband, Jocasta gets the little thing on her upper arm. The small, spare set offers a few columns. Aside from the opening incantations by the Sphinx, which sound like a pop-up children's book, the play begins with almost rigorous adherence to the general conventions.

Given the confines of the Performance Workshop Theatre, a full-sized chorus would probably violate fire regulations, so this production makes do with a bare-bones chorus of two--Katherine Lyons and Amy Dawson--who adeptly re-create it as a pair of Siamese twins who spend part of the play in the audience and part onstage. This strategy hammers home the central point of this version: It's not just about Thebes; what we're finding out is about us.

Oedipus, of course, is convinced it's all about him. Horwitz's two-mile stare--in a theater that is about 100 square meters--and his stentorian baritone make Oedipus every inch the somewhat solipsistic king, who wants nothing more than to come to the conclusion that he doesn't owe anything to anyone. Horwitz's calibrated performance leaves us focused on the incremental shifts in his eyes and voice; you get the impression that Oedipus has been rehearsing the regal rages at home alone. The cracks in the emotional mold, notably, occur when the chorus, fluttering about him, tries to comfort him into believing that he is a self-made man. Against type, he lets a puckish smile of childish glee escape.

Needless to say, we know better. And as audience members, we're included in the crowd that is gently trying to let Oedipus understand that he shouldn't play detective. As Jocasta, Weinert shines. Seductive yet maternal, she shifts from treating Oedipus as a lover to treating him as an impetuous child, one almost determined to play in the street during rush hour. Her character is arguably a little more complex than Oedipus' and almost as all-knowing as the Sphinx. At points, as she tries to convince her son to stop looking to the gods for answers, she injects a note of post-war existentialism into her speech.

There are plenty of other excellent performances by minor cast members. As Tiresias--the bearer of bad tidings--Stanley Morstein delivers a prophet who isn't so much blind as he is irritated and tired of Oedipus' regal whining. John R. Lyston, meanwhile, plays a Creon whose brother-in-law gives him a case of perpetual indigestion. And in a brief walk-on as the Shepherd, Michael Salconi looks like a professional plumber talking to a wannabe do-it-yourselfer. Oedipus claims he wants to find out where everything goes after the toilet gets flushed, but as the Shepherd tries to tell him, in vain, it's clear it's not something he truly wants to find out.

McLaughlin's translation gently prods Sophocles into new directions in ways that won't offend the classicists. It's an approach that has attracted attention recently. (Her version of Aeschylus' The Persians, with its inevitable references to military adventurism, got an enthusiastic reception at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre recently.) This production is less topical, but the message is just as blunt: The truth hurts.

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