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Photo by Ed Kreiger
WHEN, IN A NOISE WITHIN'S OEDIPUS THE KING, the Theban suppliants first scuttle into sight clad in coarse, dun-hued wraps, they seem less a delegation of citizens than a pile of rags heaped onstage. What gives? we wonder, especially when a bare-chested Oedipus arrives wearing purple-satin pajama bottoms, as though he had wandered in from Playboy After Dark. Now, we've seen one or two Greek tragedies in our time, and, like all such classics, Oedipus has been mounted in a variety of wardrobes, from the white togas favored by traditionalists to the black turtlenecks of downtown-loft venues. But the rabble-as-rubble/Oedipus-cum-Hef approach sets the mind on edge -- which is no small tribute to director Art Manke and costume designer Angela Balogh Calin, whose efforts make us contemplate this work as though experiencing it for the first time.

The story is a straightforward horror fable: Thebes has been gripped by a mysterious plague; its citizens pray to Apollo for relief while King Oedipus (Robertson Dean) has sent his brother-in-law, Creon (Rod Menzies), to consult the oracle at Delphi. A big mistake, for Oedipus now learns the murder of his predecessor, Laius, is the cause for Thebes' ruin. He sets out to bring Laius' assassin to book, only to discover evidence that first he himself may have been that murderer and, soon after, that Laius was his true father and his own wife, Queen Jocasta (Lorna Raver), his mother. Oedipus and Jocasta's predicament merely fulfills a half-forgotten prophecy, although the gods have generously permitted them the freedom to choose how they will respond to it.

NOT A GESTURE IS WASTED IN MANKE'S COMPACT, muscular Oedipus, drawn from Kenneth Cavandar's translation, which was first put to use by the Oxford Experimental Theater Company. While Cavandar's script appears to favor British accents, these actors make the language their own, none more so than Dean, who, as the accumulating facts inexorably indict him, transforms from proud mortal to self-mutilated penitent. Here, he is ably complemented by Raver, who absorbs the unfolding truth on a different, though no less tragic, level. (It is to this production's credit that Raver appears as someone who could be Oedipus' mother, rather than -- as is often the case -- a same-age actress with a Lily Munster streak of white running through her hair.) Rounding out the strategy is Beverley Thies' intricate lighting plot, which constantly emphasizes the characters' moods.

The show is at once historical and allegoric, bloody and austere; sure, we figure, the peasants' off-the-rack rags reflect their low state of consciousness, as well as their pious conformity and lack of ambition. On the other hand, maybe this is how Mediterranean peasantry actually looked in those Periclean years. Throughout the evening, Oedipus' inner turmoil is echoed by these and other characters, who, while they are all on the same side, nevertheless seem to totter on the verge of some terrible civic warfare. Manke marshals his ensemble into tightly orchestrated blocks on Michael C. Smith's raked, disc-shaped stage, which resembles either a giant shield or an Aztec calendar. The chorus, which constitutes a kind of Theban middle class, is dressed in long tunics and stands defensively in military wedge formations as its members chant their fears and prayers.

Form always serves function here; the costuming and lighting may be conspicuous, but only work to reinforce an atmosphere arthritic with dread, and not to replace the play's ideas. In other words, there is nothing decisively "updated" in this version; no one walks on with a boom box, Creon does not speak into a cell phone -- in fact, the production is virtually propless. And yet it remains perfectly accessible and immediate, a staging that forcefully reaches out to generations of TV watchers without compromising the integrity of the story. Watching this Oedipus, we cannot escape the crushing weight of its hero's crimes, however inadvertently committed, and share the horrible awe that must have crept upon the audiences of antiquity as it dawned upon them just where Oedipus' investigation was leading.

THINGS ARE A LITTLE DIFFERENT WITH RICHARD Krevolin's King Levine, presented at the Odyssey Theater as a visiting production. From Forbidden Planet to West Side Story, Shakespeare's plays continue to appear in the bloodstream of modern pop culture in all sorts of guises and camouflage. Krevolin's comedy version focuses on Moishe Levine (Sammy Shore), a self-styled bialy king who, in his twilight years, gloats about how his bagel-like product can be found in the freezer sections of even the WASPiest regions of America. After an ill-advised attempt to cop a feel with a shiksa employee lands him in legal hot water, Levine's Wharton-educated daughter, Rikki, comes up with a plan to circumvent a sexual-harassment suit by checking the king into a Jewish old-age home, much to his displeasure. Things turn nasty when the steely Rikki conspires to keep him there for good, while she takes over his company. Neither she nor another daughter, the New Age dilettante Bobbi, has any desire to see him back at his desk, and so King Levine must turn for help to his least favorite child, the angry lesbian-feminist Jami.

Strictly speaking, Krevolin's send-up isn't a stealth King Lear, because, for one thing, its central character proclaims throughout the play his affection for this particular tragedy and loudly insists he will not end up like the Shakespearean monarch. And for another thing, a big portrait of King Lear frowns down upon Levine in his office. Finally, there is the small matter of this being a two-character play, with Bari Hochwald ably impersonating the three daughters. Without a Fool and any duplication of King Lear's Gloucester subplot, you ain't got much of a parallel.

Then again, with an oversize personality like Shore, perhaps there isn't much room onstage for other characters. Let's face it, the show is mostly a vehicle for this veteran warm-up act and Comedy Store co-founder, and the candy-wrapper crinklers in the audience respond warmly to his take-my-wife humor and recurring toupee sight gags. I wish I could report that Krevolin has come up with a witty grafting of Shakespeare onto modern-day Jewish sensibilities, but he hasn't and, under Joe Bologna's laissez-faire direction, Shore refuses to adjust his burlesque demeanor to anything resembling pauses or introspection, nor does he show an appreciation of Shakespeare as anything but an excuse to kvetch. This is a shame, because we know Shore is capable of articulating deeper stirrings, as evidenced by his soulful one-man play, The Warm-Up.

Still, there remains something unquestionably touching about the way he careens about the stage, jabbing his bony finger in the face of a millennial America that makes no sense to him. At times the show approaches so-bad-it's-good, as Shore stands and delivers lines like "When you get older, life becomes repairs" and "Your mother never did anything with her mouth except belittle me." During other moments, the evening becomes a living museum of a vanishing humor, a Yiddish-punctuated show that could please audiences that wouldn't know the difference between naches and nachos. We leave with the feeling that if Krevolin and Shore had taken on Sophocles instead of Shakespeare, the night would have been called Oedipus at Grossinger's: "Now, we've seen one or two Greek tragedies in our time -- and some of 'em have been onstage!" Hi-ohhh!

OEDIPUS THE KING | By SOPHOCLES | At A Noise

Within | 234 S. Brand Ave., Glendale | Through May 8

KING LEVINE | By RICHARD KREVOLIN | At the Odyssey Theater

2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. | Through April 4

The 20th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards, with Charlotte Rae, Chris Wells, Circle X Theater Company, Karen Finley, the cast of Naked Boys Singing!, Pasadena Shakespeare Company and others, will be held at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown, on Monday, April 19, beginning at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.); reception to follow. The posting of nominees can be found online at www.laweekly.com. Admission for all nominees plus one guest is free; for all others, $12. All queries and RSVPs can be made on the Awards hot line: (323) 993-3693. Please make checks payable to L.A. Weekly c/o Lisa Yu, 6715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028. Checks must be received by April 4.

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