“Oedipus” at Balagan Theatre

“Oedipus” is a play created by its ensemble cast and crew, based on two of the plays in Sophocles’ Oedipus Cycle — “Oedipus Rex” and “Oedipus at Colonus.” The group spent somewhere between 4 and 6 months working on the project, beginning last winter. In that respect, it is a really daring show — ensemble work is rarely ever generated, and even more rarely are plays given that much time for discussion and configuration. The final product is very technically solid and a really beautiful piece of work to watch — fluid, symbolic, drawing deep from Peter Brooks’ creative small theatre. I have mentioned before that I’m not really a fan of “new” works of theatre being based on already-written stories, because I think you can take that same creative spark and make something actually new. I stand by that statement, but if you must plagiarize an old play, this weird ensemble-generated work is a very interesting way to go about it.

That said, I do have my nit-picky disagreements with the production. Of course.

While the show is very technically precise, like watching a perfectly choreographed dance, I did have a complaint with the acting in the show. Two of the actors, Patrick Bentley and Gabe Franken, were very energetic, but I felt that everyone else was too subtle, stuck somewhere in an episode of CSI. Occasionally, I felt like the actors were phoning it in — they knew the ins and outs of the story so well that they could get away with it, because the show didn’t stop while they struggled to draw some emotion up. It just wasn’t that interesting at that particular moment. The actors were connected for most of the show, but I still felt like a lot of them were … dry. Clinical, almost. This is, I will point out, a totally subjective complaint coming from someone who tends to prefer emotional extremes in her shows.

There were a couple of points of symbolism I felt I could do without. Creon’s insanity, which bookended the two parts of the story, was a weak and, to me, stereotypical narrator that added nothing to the show. And I really didn’t care for the portrayal of the Sphinx. Not that the character was poorly acted, but I was frankly offended that this hideous, terrifying beast was turned into a sexed-up pop icon in sequined shorts and a corset. Really? Are they saying that sexually active women are scary monsters, or are they trying to put the Sphinx in the realm of the human instead of the divine? For a show that otherwise accepts mysticism, fate, prophecy, etc, to tear down, then tart up, one of the most symbolic, rich, primeval characters in the entire Oedipus myth is an afront to Sophocles, and the actress that played the Sphinx.

On the other hand, the show had some really great moments. Gabe Franken’s jester was probably my favorite character in the show, and the dynamic between Ismene and Antigone was captured beautifully (and leaves me hoping this group gets together again to mount a production of “Antigone”). I was left wanting for a climax and denouement when Oedipus discovered he’d played right into the hands of fate, but that was redeemed with his speech at Colonus about the cruel fickleness of the gods’ choice for him. Tiresias is another character who was taken down a few mystical pegs in the show, but since the character has a long tradition of being a physically helpless old man, to portray him as an enslaved, straight-jacket-bound, and frightened girl actually worked quite well.

I wouldn’t say that the world created was rich and detailed, but it had a lot of beautiful touches. And as I mentioned before, the whole thing ran beautifully, scenes flawlessly falling into place one on top of the other, to create an almost claustrophobic effect as fate closed around the characters. I really do hope this group gets back together to create another piece — I think they have a really solid foundation for creating work, and that will only get better and stronger and more inventive the more they work together. I deeply hope this was not a one-shot experiment on Balagan’s part. I do think they could help create a revolution in Seattle theatre if they keep going down this path.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *