By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Oedipus the King was a mama’s boy. If Sophocles didn’t make that clear enough in his tragedy of 429 B.C., the Troubadour Theater Company’s 2009 B.C.E (Burbank, California) version does, with the image of Oedipus’ husky-voiced wife, Jocasta (Beth Kennedy) — who the king (director Matt Walker) will soon figure out is his mother — flipping open the neckline of her slinky red gown (gorgeously garish costumes by Sharon McGunigle) to pop out a cloth boob for him to suck.
“There you go, feel better now, Sweetie?” Jocasta comforts the monarch as he fingers the painted nipple.
Where I come from, that’s called driving home a point.
I should mention that Oedipus, who has a shock of black hair uncontained by a useless headband, and matching bejeweled white shirt and flared trousers with bright-red fringe, bears a striking resemblance to Elvis Presley — or, to be more precise, to a desperate Elvis impersonator. And that the onstage band, helmed by Musical Director Eric Heinly, accompanies a series of Elvis’ ditties, which the clown company croons with comedic accomplishment, often swaying and sashaying to Ameenah Kaplan’s vintage choreography, which really belongs on a ghost-memory episode of the The Ed Sullivan Show.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Oedipus the King, Mama! is a musical parody of Sophocles’ play, of musical shtick, of Elvis mania and of cheesy theatrical devices. In the tradition of the Troubies’ mashing of classic lit into pop music (Twelfth Dog Night, Alice in One-Hit-Wonderland, Much Adoobie Brothers About Nothing), the event’s thrill hangs on the tautness of the theatrical wires that bind the classical source material, the music and the freewheeling improvisation. In early years, the troupe would get carried away goofing with the audience so that the source material melted into oblivion. In the last couple of seasons, however, Walker and company have mastered a form of their own making. Even with the absurd juxtaposition of ancient Greek tragedy with Elvis Presley — created, I’m guessing, for no larger reason than the double-entendre of the words king and mama — it’s kind of amazing how faithful this rendition is to the intricate structure of Sophocles’ play, despite Jocasta’s brother, Creon (Rick Batalla in a luminous-green wizard suit, with pointy hat), confiding after one improvised diversion that he’d forgotten where they were in the play.
The event opens on an almost bare stage, with Walker, dressed in black and standing by a music stand, apologizing to the critics. For reasons related to the economy, he says, the company has been forced into performing a concert reading of the play. Even so, he adds, they’re charging full price, because to not do so, “well, that would be stupid.”
He’s onstage with Batalla, Kennedy and Breanna Pine, also in dark concert-reading attire, when James Snyder bounds onto the stage in a glittery Greek tunic. Despite a few jokes about Snyder’s “wax job,” his CDs for sale in the lobby from Cry Baby, which he performed on Broadway last year, and the subtle absurdity of the visual spectacle, Walker is determined to press on: “Oedipus the King,” he recites formally with just a trace of pomposity — “a tragedy in five acts.” This mere description prompts a groan from Batalla and the swift departure of Kennedy to pick up her residuals checks from her post-office box. Yet the interplay among the quintet has the same kind of gentle humor as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,a TV show from the Elvis era, puttering along with an amiable good cheer over a petty, subterranean conflict — a prequel to a show that’s about to explode into something Monty Python–esque, with teeth being spat out, ketchup blood streaming down faces, and a dead-queen piñata.
Through all of this, Walker’s Oedipus has a trick knee (the consequence of a post-birth mutilation of his feet) that forces his leg to pop out with every second step — a physical twitch that Walker beautifully integrates into his Elvis plastique. (Mike Jespersen’s set also includes a handicapped zone in which to park his chariot.)
Meanwhile, Kennedy’s Tennesseean Jocasta oozes with sexuality that’s something between feline and reptilian. At one point during the show I saw, she slithered up and down the audience railing, a few feet from where I was sitting. From the stage, Oedipus cautioned her that I was a critic, and that, as queen, she should behave with more decorum.
“I’ll do anything for a good review,” she grunted, straddling the crossbeam. Okay, she got what she asked for.
One revelatory moment of improv came when a feather from one of the costumes drifted from the stage up and out into the audience. Walker and Batalla seized the moment and followed it, with a running commentary on how such a tiny object could defy gravity. They each reached for it, into the sky, as it mocked their will. Midair, it broke into two pieces — one for each of them to grasp at. And so they split focus, like the feather itself, crawling over audience members while reaching, reaching skyward for the unreachable.