Review: ‘Oedipus Rex’

Kelvin Rosten Jr. as Oedipus and Kate Collins as Jocasta in “Oedipus Rex.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Court Theatre,
5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Dec. 8
Tickets: $37.50-$84
Phone: 773-753-4472

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If classics scholar and Court Theatre founding artistic director Nicholas Rudall were still alive (he died in 2018), I think he would be very proud of what the theater has done with his translation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex.” Court’s artistic director Charles Newell, his ensemble of 14 actors, and the designers have achieved a stunning synthesis of classical and contemporary to tell the iconic story of the ill-fated king who killed his father and married his mother.

This coup starts with John Culbert’s scenic design, an all-white, multilevel box made of many panels with walls slanted outward and a set of steps upstage. It suggests a plaza in front of a palace, but abstracted; Keith Parham’s dramatically colored lighting reflects the emotional content of what is happening as much as anything else. The sound design by Andre Pluess and Christopher La Porte underscores the shifting dynamics as well as supports the movement design by Erin Kilmurray in an 80-minute show where every moment is carefully choreographed.

Jacqueline Firkin’s costume design, a blend of ancient and post-modern subtly referencing everything from togas to infinity scarves, completes the picture. The members of the chorus, several of whom double in other roles, wear white. Oedipus is in purple satin (as befits a king); Jocasta in pale gold; Creon in silvery gray.

Newell’s direction combines conversational dialogue with stylized motion to create a potent, if slightly disconcerting, blend of realism and ritual. During the opening, the members of the chorus writhe and crawl across the stage to embody the plague afflicting Thebes, where the action takes place, but they also walk up the aisles welcoming the audience, making us part of the community of the play. This notion continues, with viewers consulted at several points; for example, we’re asked the whereabouts of a certain crucial shepherd.

The tragic tale unfolds as a kind of mystery, even though we know the outcome. Implored by his people to cure the plague, Oedipus sets about finding its source by interviewing one person after another. He’s increasingly driven to learn the truth, but as forcefully portrayed Kelvin Roston, Jr., he’s equally inclined to reject each piece of evidence that points to him as the culprit. The push-pull results in violent swings of emotion—at one point he and Kate Collins’ Jocasta literally roll on the ground with joy and relief – so that Roston’s king doesn’t realize his guilt in increments but rather succumbs only when the evidence becomes overwhelming. All along the way, those who know more than he does  enjoin him to stop his quest.

His reactions, of course, stem from an ironic misconception on his part. Although the oracle at Delphi prophesied that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother, he thought his parents were King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, where he grew up. So, he left there for Thebes to avoid that happening, not knowing that he was the son of Laius and Jocasta. Arriving at Thebes, he learned that Laius had recently been killed, and he solved the riddle of the Sphinx to free the city from that monster, be made ruler, and win the hand of Laius widow – never connecting any of this with the old man he met and killed on the road.

While Roston’s dictatorial performance dominates, several of the others are more interesting and occasionally even funny. Christopher Donahue is brilliant and hilarious as the blind soothsayer Teiresias. His irreverent attitude toward Oedipus boils down to: If you don’t want to believe me, it’s no skin off my nose, but you shouldn’t have asked me to come. Wendy Robie has a heartfelt turn as the Corinth shepherd who, in reporting the death of King Polybus, inspires Oedipus and Jocasta’s elation—until she sheds some light on Oedipus’ real parentage.

The Creon of Timothy Edward Kane is a character to keep an eye on. When Oedipus accuses him of plotting to overthrow him early on, Kane’s effusive protestations of innocence have a panicky edge. By the end, when Oedipus has blinded himself with the hanged Jocasta’s broach and begs Creon to take care of his children, a stony Creon turns away without any response. This sets him up for his appearances in the rest of the Oedipus Trilogy Court is staging: “The Gospel at Colonus” this coming spring and Sophocles’ “Antigone” next winter.

In the meantime, I urge you to see “Oedipus Rex.” Besides being highly theatrical, it’s admirably clear and accessible.