Long before the All My Childrens and General Hospitals of the world, the Greek tragedian Sophocles wrote one of the great family dramas of all time in Oedipus the King, viscerally spreading incest and self-mutilation at Broken Gears Project Theatre.
The story that gave birth to a popular Freudian complex, Oedipus warns of the danger of challenging fate and turning a blind eye to truth.
The title character, played by David Jeremiah, is king of the Greek city-state of Thebes, but hails from Corinth, where he had been adopted by King Polybus and Queen Merope.
At the opening of the play, the people of Thebes are living amidst a terrible plague. Having gone to the Oracle of Delphi to enquire as to the reason for the punishment, Creon (G. David Trosko), the brother of Oedipus' wife Jocasta (Lulu Ward), returns with the answer that the killer of King Laius, Jocasta's first husband and former king of Thebes, is in Thebes. Until he can be found and exiled, Thebes will suffer.
To this end, Creon implores the king to send for the prophet Tiresias (Joel Frapart) who proceeds to inform Oedipus that he, in fact, is Laius' murderer.
The proceeding events uncover a chain reaction that feeds the broader theme of the inability to escape fate, and infamously ends in horrifying fashion.
The importance of the play is accentuated in Sophocles' mastery of language and how he used it to unlock the true potential of human expression. Showcasing a superbly tight narrative arch featuring intricately developed characters, and one of history's first great plot twists, Oedipus takes storytelling to a level rarely matched since.
And through the deft use of imagery and symbolism, his ability to layer social and philosophical commentary amongst gripping action add immense depth to the narratives, and elevates the cultural impact of Oedipus beyond the circumstances of the plot.
A fortunate side effect of his inclusion of timeless themes like tempting fate and the search for truth is that this play remains relevant today, despite its arcane story, and is ripe for modern adaptation.
Enter director Steven Young, who took the original work and constructed just such an adaptation.
Now set in an uncanny world, not our own but not beyond the realm of imagination, Young sets Oedipus in an anachronistic place that features the eponymous ruler in a suit, Creon in traditional military dress, and the prophet confined to a wheelchair. All of this is set askew by Sophocles' classic dialogue and imbues the story with an ethereal noncompliance with time, reinforcing the universality of the story.
Jeremiah injects a foreboding malice in the king, which draws attention to the fear and mistrust instilled in him by a checkered, uncertain past. Though he sometimes comes up short of delivering a truly emotional gut punch to the audience, his intensely conflicted demeanor ominously builds like the coming of a great storm. However, when it's time for the torrent, the audience is instead left with thunder, no lightning. His climactic monologue, while not lacking for conviction, just doesn't quite land.
Trosko's Creon is menacingly deceptive. While dutifully maintaining his allegiance to the king, the classic trope of monarchial positioning, couched here in fulfilling his duty to his country, can't help but seep through the honorable facade. The piercing ambiguity of the character is a credit to Trosko. He takes a rich character and makes him richer.
The highlight of the performance is Ward's Jocasta. The horror that sets upon her at the moment of the plot's big reveal is haunting. Most impressive, though, is her grasp of Sophocles' words. While most of the cast keeps closely to a more oratorical manner of speaking, Ward's use of inflection and intonation made the dense language decipherable and even accessible to the modern audience. It’s a commendable feat to say the least.
All in all, Young's adaptation is straightforward and effective. He clearly has a strong grasp of the dichotomy of vision and blindness so integral to the plot, even featuring an eye covered by a hand as the universal symbol of Thebes. Understanding the importance of the thematic elements, he resists going in an abstract direction and the production is all the better for it.
In the current climate of art for art's sake, Sophocles strikes a healthy blow for the didactic qualities of theater, and ultimately, provides the primary reason for the continued reproduction of the piece.
And as a vessel for the tragedian, Steven Young and Broken Gears Project Theatre carry the torch and light the way for what theater can be in the face of rampant sterilization.
Giving sight to the blind, as it were.