“Oedipus King”

Play:        “Oedipus King”

Group:        Upstream Theater

Venue:        Kranzberg Arts Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters Building, 501 North Grand

Dates:        October 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24

Tickets:    $15-$25; contact 314-863-4999 or  www.upstreamtheater.org

Story:    Oedipus, king of Thebes in ancient Greece, has spent years in exile from his parents, King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, out of fear of a prediction by the oracle at Delphi, who had warned Oedipus that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  After solving the riddle of the Sphinx en route to Thebes, Oedipus was hailed as the savior of the city that had been the subject of the Sphinx’s wrath and subsequently was pronounced king.  He married Queen Jocasta, a widow whose husband, King Laius, had been murdered at a crossroads outside Thebes, and fathered two daughters by her, Ismene and Antigone.

    When a priest entreats Oedipus to help in alleviating a plague on Thebes, Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to the Delphic oracle for advice.  Creon returns with word that the plague is caused because Laius’ killer still is free many years later.  In his search for the killer, Oedipus learns from the blind prophet Tiresias that he himself is the murderer of his own father and the husband of his own mother.  Between recalling pivotal events in his past and revelations about who his true parents really were, Oedipus faces his inevitably tragic conclusion and takes extreme measures in attempting to cleanse himself and Thebes.

Highlights:    “Oedipus King” is considered among the pantheon of the greatest tragedies by the ancient Greeks.  It was written by Sophocles, one of a trio of Greek tragedians including Aeschylus and Euripedes.  First performed in the fifth century B.C., it long has stood the test of time for its greatness, touching on the most basic of human fears and taboos through its use of supernatural and fantastic elements.

    Philip Boehm, whose Upstream Theater strives to “move you to think,” mounts productions of works literally from around the world.  In this case, director Boehm takes a translation by David Slavitt and the suggestion of his own father John to produce this version of Sophocles’ timeless treatise on free will or the lack thereof and humanity’s essential fear of the unknown.  Played out on a brilliant set designed by Michael Heil that features a giant orb illustrating Oedipus solving the ominous riddle of the fearful Sphinx that is mounted on a rubble of stones and with a brooding backdrop, Boehm’s straightforward telling is a showcase re-enactment of an enduring work.

Other Info:    There are problems with this staging, however. For reasons that escape me, costume designer LaLonnie Lehman features barefoot aristocrats but peasants and a Greek chorus outfitted with sandals.  Additionally, Oedipus and Creon are adorned in pants, which I don’t recall depicted in ancient Greek dramas previously.  Conversely, Jocasta’s gown is most elegant and the rags of the prophet Tiresias and assorted messengers seem apropos.  Bonnie Taylor’s notable props, including a bowl with a steady flame, and Steve Carmichael’s incisive lighting add to the haunting effect.

    Boehm’s impressive cast delivers a number of strong performances, led by John Bratkowski’s superior turn as Tiresias.  Bratkowski captures the stumbling gait of the blind soothsayer as well as his strong convictions, delivering his lines with a pronounced authority.  He’s also convincing as an amiable messenger from Corinth who conveys some ultimately nasty news to Oedipus.

    J. Samuel Davis does a fine job as the tortured Oedipus, although it’s difficult not to consider him ‘acting’ at any particular moment.  That likewise holds for Amy Loui’s angst-filled performance as Jocasta and Peter Mayer’s terse turn as the diffident Creon.  Dennis Lebby is moving as the shepherd who saved Oedipus as an infant and now is compelled to reveal catastrophic news of his king’s destiny.  Christopher Harris, Laurie McConnell and Emily Piro are effective as the Greek chorus, while Inka Sklodowska and Alessandra Silva silently portrayed royal daughters Antigone and Ismene, respectively, at the opening Sunday performance.

    Upstream’s presentation of “Oedipus” is earnest and sincere, but it most often has the feel of a staged performance that can be overly wrought and academic, unable to convince a viewer to suspend disbelief.

Rating:    A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.