KPBS AIRDATE: August 7, 1996
Oedipus and TV talk-shows. Tragedy and travesty. I never thought it would work.
But the San Diego Rep’s ruminator, Doug Jacobs, and Sledgehammer’s wild-man, Scott Feldsher, have actually pulled it off. They’ve successfully managed to juxtapose the classic with the classless, intertwining Sophoclean genius and sophomoric entertainment.
The ancient Sophocles Theban trilogy has been transported into modern times, into a SoCal, Greek-like city-state called Calafia, which is the epicenter of a deadly plague. And they’ve brought the entire cursed and doomed Oedipus family onstage, in front of cameras and a live studio audience, to tell their tale of horror.
First, though, the audience has to be warmed up, so we get this relentlessly enthusiastic Todd character, who prepares us to respond on cue, and to defer at all times to our fearless leader, the unctuous, smarmy Wayne Tibbetts, the TV host whose “mentor, Svengali and close personal friend is Regis Philbin.” The show, whose name we are all forced to repeat interminably, both as warning and affirmation is: The Whole World is Watching.
We, the audience, are the Greek chorus, and Tibbetts is our primary spokesperson and resident provocateur, who doggedly goes after the tragic King Oedipus and his ruthless, tyrannical brother-in-law Creon. Before the evening is out, Oedipus, in finally investigating the cause of the plague, will bring on his own destruction. (Just so we don’t miss any topical or political parallels, we are conveniently reminded that Ronald Reagan was in office for eight years and never once talked about AIDS). Ka-boom! We just got hit over the head with symbolism and significance. It happens periodically, but not too too often.
Of course, as the all-knowing audience, we are fully aware that Oedipus, fulfilling the prophecy of the gods, killed his father, married his mother, and sired his sisters, and that, as a result, he will poke out his eyes, his daughter will be buried alive, his wife will hang herself, and other Hollywood-worthy deaths will occur. Nevertheless, the suspense is still palpable.
Although the talk-show is a clever conceit, and the real-time and replay videos are skillfully done, sometimes you just kinda wish that would all go away and you could just focus on the timeless story. But that ancient family reportedly did air all its filthy laundry in front of the populace, and if they’d had TV, they undoubtedly would have used it.
A reworking of “Oedipus Rex,” the first act is frenetic, what with all the cameramen and floor directors and Wayne moving all over the place challenging everyone. It feels frighteningly like a real television studio, and yet it is surprisingly true to the original storyline. The second and third parts, based on “Antigone” and “Oedipus at Colonus,” progressively ratchet down the energy level, while taking a lot more liberties with the source material. Ultimately, we’re left in a somber, contemplative state. And that’s a real triumph, given how the evening starts out. Despite the apparent randomness of the ancillary activity, the central drama is taut and engrossing, extremely well acted and very well directed.
It’s amazing that, in presenting a trio of tragedies, Jacobs and Feldsher manage to wring from us the full range of human emotions and we don’t even feel too manipulated. Actually, this three-hour spectacle gives us a little perspective on our unquenchable thirst for deadly confessionals and endless gore. It’s not just our sick society; it’s our literary legacy.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.