By Pat Launer
Oedipus dies, Antigone grieves,
Bananas may be committed to a House of Blue Leaves.
Exiles, defectors, dreamers in distress:
All pawns in the great, cosmic game of Chess.
‘You say EDipus and I say EEdipus’….
Scholar/translator Marianne McDonald says it’s EEdipus in England and EDipus in the U.S.. So why was the cast at 6th @ Penn told to pronounce it EEdipus?? One of those great mythical mysteries of life, I guess. In her talk-back after the opening night performance of “Oedipus at Colonus,” McDonald used the line I borrowed to title this section (many thanks, Marianne!) and also said that the Greek tragedies, on which she is an expert, should be updated and re-translated every decade or so, to keep them fresh, relevant, and presented in a language that people can readily understand. Well, she’s certainly doing her part, making her way through the whole tragic canon, with translations that are clear, colloquial and comprehensible.
This is the middle third of the Sophocles trilogy (the others are “Oedipus Rex” — or, as McDonald prefers, “Oedipus Tyrannos” and “Antigone”). Although the play has less of a dramatic arc than its mates, and a lot less dramatic conflict, it still has a good deal to say. Written in about 410A.D., near the end of Sophocles’ life (and not performed until after his death), it’s a fascinating juxtaposition of philosophies. On the one hand, it expounds a Greek pessimism (“Never to be born is best,” “Sorrow is never far away/Suffering is heaped on suffering”) and fatalism (“What has happened had to happen”; “We’re all in the hands of the Fates”). On the other hand, there is a fair amount of free will expressed. It’s all about searching for identity, making a life of quality, dying with dignity.
This is the end of Oedipus’ journey. He’s fulfilling the closing part of the prophesy; having killed his father, married his mother, blinded himself and been exiled, he has come at last to his place of rest. Though he is ragged and pitiful, he is not wholly ennobled. He says he is “a holy and pious man,” and he is, in fact, kind to Theseus (a noble, gallant Von Schauer) and loving to his faithful daughters, Antigone and Ismene (movingly played by Beth Bayless and Robin Christ). But he is ruthless to Creon (a vigorous Joe Nesnow) and thoroughly unyielding, hate-filled and unforgiving toward his son, Polynices (a potent and aching Jim Chovick) who failed to stop the exile and now wants his father’s alliance so he can vanquish his brother Eteocles. Oedipus hurls stinging curses at him, and we wince as Chovick silently shrivels in anguish.
This is a man still raging with passion, capable of expressing extremes of emotion, which is what (Fates aside) brought his downfall earlier in life. Perhaps he hasn’t learned as much along the way as he thinks. It seemed almost a predictive malediction for him to tell his daughters “You’ve had more love from me than you will from any other man.” He loves, he hates, perhaps too much. When all is said and done, he’s just human, taking the voyage we each must take, wending his way through a path of brambles and briars, sometimes lit by sunshine, ending in death.
There are several memorable lines that go right to the heart and soul of our current cultural climate: “So much for fame, when it trickles away and comes to nothing.” “I was a victim, not a criminal.” “Trouble for the sake of a parent should be no trouble at all.” “A country’s power withers, just like a man’s body.” “You ignored our sovereignty and took what you wanted by force.” (That one really hit home).
Director George Ye has marshaled a compelling company, though the production varies in tone. Sometimes it’s magical and mythical, as in the opening moments, with three silent, white-masked figures appearing as visions behind a scrim. But that image doesn’t match the realism of the rest of the piece. Matt Scott’s single-tree scenic design looks like a setup for “Godot,” but it’s put to good use. Shulamit Nelson’s costumes are excellent. The Chorus, as is often the case in modern productions of Greek drama, is problematic. Here, they sometimes seem to be engaged and interactive, sometimes distracted or disinterested. But at the center of it all, in a gripping, captivating performance, is Jack Banning’s frail Oedipus, a man who’s ready to die, even if he hasn’t learned all the lessons of life.
PAWNS IN THE GAME
Samll but mighty, displaced but unbowed, the La Jolla Stage Company remains fearless. The group valiantly wrestles with tough material, challenging musicals like “The Secret Garden” and demanding dramas such as “Eleemosynary,” “Love’s Fire” and “Death and the Maiden” (the latter two in collaboration with Stone Soup Theatre). “Chess,” created by ABBA’s Benny and Bjorn (Anderson and Ulvaeus, that is) , with lyrics by Tim Rice, is one such theatrical trial. The music is difficult, often non-lyrical and best executed with significant choral and musical backup. Add to that a very small cast, with inconsistent miking, taped musical accompaniment and a new, inflexible space (gym by day, theater by night) and you’ve got yourself one hefty challenge.
The spirit was willing, God knows, but the result didn’t always rise to the occasion. Lots of effort and heart here, but clearly a minimal budget and likewise the direction/choreography. In fact, given the six standing mikes on a stage and the obviously limited human and financial resources, the Company would have done better to present this in concert style, which is how the production often seemed anyway. In fact, the show, like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” Rice’s collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber, actually originated as a successful record album.
With the audience on three sides, the staging consisted mostly of main characters circling each other or circling the room. It was enough to induce dizzy spells. The ensemble, composed mostly of non-dancers in spectacularly low-budget costumes (pastel-colored t-shirts, anyone?), would have done better to stay put at those standing mikes; the choral singing was actually quite nice. Perhaps musical theater training isn’t what it used to be, or maybe lung physiology isn’t. But in such a small space, despite the high ceilings, it seemed totally unnecessary to have the lead singers miked — unless they couldn’t handle the score. It did seem, on many occasions, that despite their perfectly adequate voices, they were straining in the rangey songs the musical specializes in. As staged in London, the show was an elaborate, high-tech spectacle, which, though it ran for three years, never recouped its investment. In New York (1988), the production lost $6 million. In this case, smaller and simpler doesn’t necessarily mean better, especially in glitzy, sexy numbers like the second-act opener, “One Night in Bangkok.” In the more intimate songs, like the aching duet, “I Know Him So Well,” the cast served the score and show quite well.
The titillating behind-the-scenes-story concerns the two leads, Patrick J. Duffy as Anatoly, the Russian chess-wiz who defects mid-championship, and Season Marshall, who plays the Hungarian-born chess ‘second’ who switches lovers and loyalties, from the coarse, Bobby-Fischer-type American to the charmingly irresistible Russian. The couple just got engaged, and this is their first time playing opposite each other. Their onstage chemistry was lovely and those kisses looked deep and real. Marshall plays too angry too often, and her sweet head-voice is far more appealing than her ‘belt.’ Duffy is imposing and engaging as the confused Grand Master, Anatoly. Christopher Miller is winning as the temperamental Freddie Trumper and Skyler Dennon is aptly slimy and amusing as the American ad-man. Brian P. Evans and Chrissy Burns bring dignity (and credible accents) to their roles as the Russian seconds — he as player-coach, she as betrayed wife.
There are some effective and melodious moments in this production, but the new Stage Company space proved less than welcoming. I wish artistic director Tim Heitman and his wife Paula Pierson-Heitman more felicitous flexibility in the future.
“I’m not interested so much in how people survive,” playwright John Guare has said, “as in how they avoid humiliation… That is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives.”
In his celebrated but controversial play, “The House of Blue Leaves” (winner of the Obie and New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play in 1971 and four Tony Awards during its 1986 revival), just about every character is humiliated and/or betrayed — by an ally or by their own desires. It’s a landscape of dreams — fantasies of success, wealth, celebrity and most of all, being more than we are in everyday life. Guare has a lot on his mind, from fame to religion to terrorist acts. Set during a contentious war, the play resonates neatly with our times. But nailing it is difficult, because of its wide tonal swings — a potentially murky mix of black comedy, farce, drama and social commentary.
Onstage, it’s October 4, 1965, in Sunnyside, Queens. Pope Paul IV is coming to New York, ostensibly “to end the Vietnam War.” Artie, a wannabe songwriter, is convinced that miracles are in the air. The sad clown of the piece, he works as a zookeeper while he’s waiting for fame to knock on his door. He writes truly lousy songs that no one wants to hear. But still, he dreams on. His aptly named wife is Bananas, a woman who confuses Brillo and burgers and has a penchant for acting and eating like a puppy. She’s frequently delusional, strung out on pills, headed for the Loony Bin, perhaps (that’s the House of the title) — but often more sane than anyone else. Including her nutso, menacing son, who goes AWOL from the Army in hopes of blowing up the Pontiff so he can get his own five minutes of fame. And Bunny, Artie’s over-zealous, micro-managing mistress, who urges him to lock Bananas away and move out to California with her to peddle his songs to the big Hollywood producer who was his childhood friend. Theirs is a relationship of culinary chastity; Bunny cheerfully sleeps with him, but she’s withholding her haute-cuisine cooking until after the wedding. A couple of nuns, also apparently AWOL, drop in to get out of the cold and watch the Pope on TV. As the craziness spirals nearly out of control, we meet a hearing-impaired Hollywood star and her fiancé, the famous producer, who arrives, deus ex Malibu, at the last minute to mourn yet another mate and fix almost everything for almost everyone. Except Artie and Bananas, who are the final act left in this circus, teetering on a high-wire of survival and sanity.
Guare is intent on showing us the flimsiness of the American Dream. In his preface to the play, he suggests that being humiliated by our dreams pushes some of us to violence and insanity.
Extremely passionate pursuit of ridiculous goals can be funny — or tragic. Lynx Performance Theatre’s artistic director Al Germani, with his background of psychiatric training, leans heavily toward the serious, underscoring the dark intensity and the emotional underpinnings of the characters. This may make them more real, but a lot less amusing. In fact, for most of the evening we forget this is a comedy. The tone is generally rather somber, despite the uproarious and outrageous things some of these characters are saying and doing. There is a lot of pain here, to be sure. But in this production, the anguish trumps the humor.
Subtlety is at a premium. Certain lines are highlighted by being intoned in unison by multiple characters (“Waiting!” “Suffering!”). The mostly liturgical music and jerky lighting also consistently seem to be unduly pointed. The costumes are variable; Bunny’s is perfectly sexy/cheesy, but Corinna and Billy look about as much like Hollywood successes as the nuns (who are, btw, very nicely attired). The Pope’s appearance is impressive, and Bananas’ outfits are suitably ethereal. The shadowy ‘assistants’ who float on and offstage seem to be both stagehands and supernumeraries; the conceit doesn’t always work, and the opening masque is portentous. There is no set to speak of, though in most productions, a piano is mandatory, as is a cramped, claustrophobic feel to this low-rent apartment. Staged in the round as it is at Adams Avenue Studio, there’s an openness that contradicts the essence of the play. For a choreographer, the director tolerates a good deal of aimless wandering and circling.
All that said, though, there are some impressive performances here. Michelle Burkhart has a wonderful, wide-eyed ingenuousness as Bananas that is both batty and heart-breaking. Laura Bozanich is a whirlwind of sexual energy and hyperactive speech as Bunny. As Artie, Fred Harlow is fine, but he’d be even more effective if he could hold some of his anguish to the end, and play the sad but ever-hopeful clown more of the time. In the small role of wacko son Ronnie, Tim Curns makes a welcome local debut; he has passion and intensity to spare. The producer and his moll (Dominic Jason Jones, Connie Terwilliger) seem mis-conceived. As written (and by name), he’s a decidedly Jewish Hollywood hotshot and she’s a young, B-movie starlet. Neither of these actors, earnest as they may be, fits the role completely.
Lots of time and effort obviously went into this production. It’s clear that Germani likes to sink his teeth into theatrical challenges; he has an imposing season coming up ( Stephen Adly Guirgis’ New York prison drama, “Jesus Hopped the A Train” in late June; and in September, Rebecca Gilman’s character study of Southern trailer-trash, “The Glory of Living,” which won the American Theatre Critics Association’s Osborn Award for Best New American Play in 2002 ). Here’s hoping he continues to pursue the clear-eyed, far-sighted vision of his company’s namesake.
At the Adams Ave. Studio through April 24.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Oedipus at Colonus” — sharply relevant new translation, compelling performances; at 6th @ Penn, through April 25.
“Still Life” — intense drama, powerful performances. New Village Arts (at Jazzercize, Carlsbad) through April 17.
“The Gingerbread Lady” — wonderful ensemble work, delicious performances; serious Simon; Renaissance theatre at Cygnet; through April 25.
“M. Butterfly” — the most amazing (true) story ever told! Excellently co-produced by Diversionary and Asian American Rep; at Diversionary Theatre, through May 8
T.S. Eliot said, “April is the cruelest month” — but he probably didn’t have all this theater around! Bask in it….
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.