In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, the title character (father of two daughters and two sons) gouges out his eyes upon learning who he is and what he's done. In Shakespeare's King Lear, a similarly hot-tempered dad named Gloucester has his eyes plucked out for him. At just about this horrific moment, he comes to understand how he glorified his bastard child (who benignly watches his dad's eyeballs being gutted, without interfering); how he was blind to this child's malicious conniving while demonizing his more loyal and worthy offspring — echoing the mistake of King Lear himself.
Eyeballs are plopping onto stage floors all over the Southland, and with them the theme of blind arrogance, when sight is the opposite of vision. Do we ever know who we are, what we're doing and why?
Jamey Hecht's new translation of Oedipus the King just opened at North Hollywood's Sherry Theatre in a lucid, traditional rendition called Oedipus the Tyrant, presented by the Porters of Hellgate and directed by Thomas Bigley. Meanwhile, at Actors Co-op in Hollywood, director Marianne Savell takes King Lear to the climes of 1850 Northern California: King Lear meets True Grit during the Gold Rush.
In Sophocles' more than 2,000-year-old play, poor King O. is trying to fathom who he is — did he really murder the former king of Thebes, as he's been accused by the blind prophet Teiresias? (This would explain the wrath of the gods.) Was he born where he thinks he was born and are his parents who he thinks they are? When he finally finds out, and stabs himself in both eyes as a direct consequence, he's probably regretting (among other things) all those nasty things he said to Teiresias — those unflattering jibes about the old seer living in the dark and therefore not understanding anything. What fools these monarchs be.
If the ancient theme of blind folly didn't resonate across the region, we wouldn't have seen Oedipus making annual local appearances for the past few years. Or maybe it's just so popular here because, let's face it, Oedipus the King is the earliest extant episode of CSI. (Episode 2 followed shortly after with Sophocles' Antigone, based on Oedipus' daughter and featuring many of the same characters — Teiresias, and Antigone's uncle Creon.) Though it lacks CSI's multiple locations, Oedipus the King is nonetheless a murder mystery, a summoning of testimony in order to demonstrate how, once the facts roll in, things may not actually be as they appear. Oedipus showed Agatha Christie, Dragnet and Law and Order how to build cottage and then mansion industries on the twists and turns of evidence accrued.
In 2009, Oedipus showed up at Burbank's Falcon Theatre as Elvis in the Troubadour Theater Company's musical riff Oedipus the King, Mama! Last year, he resurfaced in Pasadena via Luis Alfaro's East L.A.–barrio-prison adaptation, Oedipus el Rey, at the Theatre@Boston Court. (Alfaro's adaptation is now completing a second production at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C.)
The Porters of Hellgate opt for a staid togas-and-sandals approach, with Jessica Pasternak's silky earth-tone costumes. A female chorus recites in unison Sophocles' meditations on the action, sometimes performing to Taylor Fisher's choreography of arms flung from torsos simultaneously, or the percussive effect of punctuating a line with a group stamp of the foot or slap of the palm. Combine that with Nicholas Neidorf's subtly brooding sound design and original compositions, plus a performance style that gets to the translation's formality with an emotional spontaneity and truthfulness, and what transpires is absorbing. This is remarkable, given the dangers lurking in the artifice — the symmetry of Bigley's staging and Fisher's art design, the inherent possibilities of overacting and self-parody. These dangers almost never become manifest to choke this earnest endeavor.
In the title role, the youthful Charles Pasternak makes for a sometimes relaxed, sometimes tempestuous monarch, with a charm that makes it apparent how he could have wandered into Thebes after a road-rage incident and stolen the heart of Queen Jocasta (the powerful Kate O'Toole). Dylan Vigus has a thunderous presence as the Priest who opens the play, and Hecht cuts plausible distinctions between his jaded Teiresias and his callow Messenger. The strongest aspect, which should please translator Hecht no end, is the commanding articulation of the poetical prose.
Lear also keeps returning to local stages. He was at Antaeus Company last year and has been sighted at UCLA (Ian McKellen), A Noise Within and Theatricum Botanicum in years past.
Savell's production is, like Oedipus the Tyrant, similarly clear, but it squanders the potential of its own concept. Its 1850 Northern California setting appears to have been chosen for reasons of exoticism rather than offering a window on the play. If the opening scene concerns a foolish, aging king subdividing his land among his daughters, and the ensuing avarice of two said daughters combines their greed with their father's folly, it seems almost negligent to ignore the Gold Rush, the elephant outside the imagined windows of Gary Lee Reed's saloon set. In a production in which the text has been slashed and changed willy-nilly, there's not even a visual wink to that historical, epic rush for treasure, and its myths that defined our corner of America. And it was raging in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the very moment and near where this production is set.
The cutting (this version clocks in at a fleeting two hours) severs some of the most emotionally substantive lines — such as France's (Montelle Harvey) defense of Lear's spurned daughter, Cordelia (a lovely performance by Tawny Mertes). It would appear that the purpose of the cutting was to focus on the plot, often at the expense of the ideas behind the plot. If the length and grandeur of King Lear is so daunting, perhaps they should have done a shorter play. If the goal of the production is to show how the play-ending invasion from France parallels the melodrama of spaghetti Westerns, that point landed — though to what purpose is unclear.
It's a well-recited and serviceable production.
Bruce Ladd's Irish-brogued Lear belts through the travails of aging and suffering the reduction of his world, with more emotional dexterity than depth. His vigor defies much of the play's point. Because the octogenarian character so obviously appears to be in his 60s, the reference to fourscore in his line "I am a very foolish fond old man/Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less" has been changed to threescore. Though the play can wear many guises, if its centerpiece is an old, foolish king with repeated reference to his age, the man really needs to look old.
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Steve Gustafson's John Wayne–ish Gloucester struts with some animal magnetism into his own despair. Nathan Bell's bastard Edmund wisely hangs the character's overt venality in the back of the closet, allowing the lines to do most of the work. And Richard Soto's Native American Kent is on the road to something interesting, stranded in an unexplored concept.
Besides the stock Shakespearean riffs on duplicity and betrayal, this work stands out for its examination of old age, senility and the end of things. It's a play about time, and time expiring. That's an idea that shouldn't be rushed. It needs time to breathe and to settle, and deserves our patience.
OEDIPUS THE TYRANT | By SOPHOCLES, translated by JAMEY HECHT | SHERRY THEATRE, 11052 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. | Through March 13 | (818) 325-2055 | brownpapertickets.com/event/149704
KING LEAR | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sat. & Sun., 2:30 p.m. | Through March 13 | (323) 462-8460