Oedipus Rex may be one of the best known plays of the western canon, but it gets an alien staging, quite literally, in Ron Sossi’s inventive though uneven production at the Odyssey Theatre. Based on Ellen McLaughlin’s modernist, poetic adaptation of the text, Oedipus Machina transports the action to a vaguely eastern, otherworldly locale. But even here, it seems, the bloodthirsty gods will have their way: the machina in question, a rotating, podlike structure that whisks characters into view and serves as a means of egress, recalls the turning wheel of fortune, waiting to grind up humans in its gears.
Here, as in ancient Greece, Thebes is beset by a deadly plague that leaves its citizens’ ravaged bodies stacked like kindling, according to the chorus. Appealing to Apollo for mercy, the kingdom is instructed to root out the source of its corruption. Some years before, the former king Laius (whose head resides onstage, cryogenically frozen in a floating orb) was killed by a stranger at a crossroads, but his murderer was never found. To save his kingdom, the current king, Oedipus (Joshua Wolf Coleman), vows to find and prosecute Laius’ killer.
The squirm-inducing dramatic irony that follows — Oedipus’ prolonged discovery that he, in fact, is the killer he cursed, and that in attempting to outrun a childhood prophecy he fulfilled it, by killing his father and marrying his mother — is a defeat of cognitive dissociation familiar to audiences. Sossi’s adventurous staging puts a novel gloss on it, but the extraterrestrial touches rather hinder than aid the performances. Coleman’s face looks stiff beneath his pancake makeup, and the hanging basket that holds Tiresias (Lorinne Vozoff), not to mention the gravelly, voice-distorting filter to give her exhortations an extra layer of portent, render the production’s early moments inert. What this play needs is more humanity, not less of it.
Instead Coleman plays Oedipus with a hubris so outsized it’s difficult to locate in him the poor, mutilated babe whom parental fear abandoned to the elements on a mountaintop. We feel instead for those equally victimized by his actions, particularly Creon (Martin Rayner, who gives one of the play’s standout performances), Oedipus’ brother/uncle, who after being unjustly banished for treason burns the king: “If this is your idea of mercy, may you never have need of it.”
Jocasta (Dey Young) starts out a little flat but builds up credible revulsion as she begins to put together the pieces of her husband’s birth. Terry Woodberry, in the evening’s best performance of a throwaway role, generates more warmth during his brief interlude as the messenger than the whole of Oedipus’ tragedy.
Taken apart from the material, the design choices leave some worthy impressions, particularly Audrey Eisner’s costumes for the ragamuffin chorus and gowns for Jocasta. Diana Cignoni’s moody video design contributes to the overall sense of dislocation.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, through July 26, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. (310) 477-2055, www.odysseytheatre.com.
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