Wednesday, March 4, 2009

UWM's Oedipus Rex

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Running now through March 8th, UWM’s Mainstage production of Oedipus Rex has the distinct feel of several different shades of retro. One of many scripts by the evidently prolific ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, the play itself is some 2400-2500 years old. Under the Direction of UWM Assistant Professor Tony Horne, the production design of the Oedipus being staged at UWM now through Sunday is envisioned as sort of an Oedipus: 2300. While the ambient pseudo-techno synth music washed over the mainstage theatre in a way that reminded me of the late ‘80’s, I read Tony Horne’s premise for the production. Horne’s vision for the play is set in the year 2300 after an apocalypse in 2050 brought about by massive war and natural disasters. The survivors have adopted the culture and religion of the ancient Greeks. Not very plausible, but it gives the production an interesting design. The synth score for the production may sound distinctly like late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s ambient music, but the visual feel of the production is quite solidly mid- ‘70’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi. With long, flowing Greek-inspired modern dress on a beautiful Bruce Brockman set featuring long lines contrasted against a gritty, organic foreground, the production has a visual feel of Zardoz or Logan’s Run, but with more of a timeless pseudo-Greek feel to it.

As drastically offbeat as the look of the production is, UWM's Oedipus appears to be a fairly faithful staging of the Steven Berg/Diskin Clay translation of the tragedy. Bearing some passing resemblance to historically unlikely popular depictions of a Caucasian Christ, Andrew Edwin Voss cuts a suitably dramatic figure as a shirtless, caped Oedipus—King of Thebes who is destined to have murdered his father and married his mother. The tragedy travels its inevitable path as a chorus of ten move about the stage in hypnotic patterns choreographed by Shell M. Benjamin. Voss deserves considerable credit for being able to maintain the heart of an epic-level feeling of a traditional Greek drama as well as he does, even if the performance doesn’t always maintain the kind of energy or emotional dynamic it needs to remain compelling throughout. The fact that the relentlessly brutal feel of ancient, epic tragedy never has a chance to feel like a hollow parody of itself is accomplishment enough. Also putting in a notable performance here is Rich Gillard in the role of Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon. Gillard carries himself with a noble honesty that feels appropriately humble for the role.

It’s difficult to express the full reality of ancient tragedy unfolding onstage. Nearly everyone who has studied drama is familiar with the script, but the relentless brutality of it all is difficult to appreciate until you find yourself sitting in a darkened theatre with a thrust stage dominated by a huge pair of double doors which seem almost ridiculously tall while waiting for an end you know is coming without even the slightest break for refreshments as there will be no intermission. Under these conditions, it can be exhausting to watch the chorus flail about in the chaos of it all. The momentum isn’t carried perfectly for the entire length of the play, but as it is performed so rarely, this is definitely worth the $15 ticket price for anyone with an evening free between now and next Sunday.

UWM’s production of Oedipus Rex runs now through March 8th.

UWM Theatre Dept.’s next production will be Dario Fo’s The Accidental Death of An Anarchist March 25 – 29 at Studio 508 in the Kenilworth Building.

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