The Oedipus plays set in Africa

Oedipus dressed as an African king and surrounded by a chorus of villagers in tribal dress is about as remote from conventional images of ancient Greek drama as can be. Yet the Washington Shakespeare Theater directed by Michael Kahn showed audiences at the Herod Atticus Theater last week how an unusual take on Sophocles’ Theban Cycle could still focus attention on the plays’ timeless message. As artistic director of the company, Kahn spends much of his time directing Shakespeare and, he explained to the press ahead of the performances, he almost never puts Shakespearean plays in Elizabethan settings. This production of the Oedipus plays bore out his belief that removing the action from the usual setting lets the audience see the story in a new light «by removing some of the expectations of what they’re going to see.» The music, superbly played by Mia Theodoratou on harp, Matt Darriau on woodwind, Abdou Mboup on percussion and kora and Ron McBee on percussion, set an unfamiliar but hypnotic scene, with drumbeats and bird and animal cries counterpointing the action. But the chorus, for all their tribal garb and hieratic movements, took the action back to the roots of ancient Greek drama, with its interplay between the protagonists and a group of commoners. Performing all three plays together was a risk – playing off the inevitable blockbuster effect of a three-hour plus production against the benefits of seeing the whole cycle unfold – but it paid off. Some judicious truncation of «Oedipus at Colonus» pared the play back to its core, concentrating on the inexorable working out of fate from one generation to the next, where each hero somehow chooses his or her own destiny. The cumulative impact of witnessing the successive tragedies stretched the dramatic tension almost to snapping point. Heading an excellent cast, Avery Brooks was exceptional as Oedipus, portraying his decline from the proud ruler of «Oedipus Rex» to the shattered old man of «Oedipus at Colonus,» whose release from suffering comes only with his entrance through the gates of Hades. Cynthia Martells was outstanding as Antigone: brave, rebellious and regal. Her plea that divine justice should prevail over justice as defined by humans rang as timely as ever. John Livingstone Rolle, as the Watchman in «Antigone,» even brought fresh zest to 2,500-year-old jokes, in comic flashes that offered brief respite from the mounting sense of doom. Superb ensemble playing and an exceptional marriage of words, movement and music, helped make this production memorable. The Shakespeare Theater intend to present more productions at the Herodion in the future, which is welcome news. One serious reservation, which applies to many recent events at the Herodion: the unnecessary use of microphones to amplify trained voices only distorts them and disorients spectators.

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