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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Death, pestilence, grim omens, foul weather. . .you name it, the kingdom has experienced it, and the gods are evasive or just plain silent on indicating what it will take to put things right. As they emerge from underneath a shroud, the miserable throng of citizens who make up the Chorus chant "save us" to an indifferent higher power. They are filthy and clad (by costume designer Audrey Eisner) in hopsack-y rags. They look for all the world like refugees from the latest Mad Max flick, with far fewer gadgets of course.
Indeed, the hub of their kingdom is no less resplendent. An elevated footpath snakes up and around a white igloo-like dome which rotates to bring new people into view. The newcomers may be higher ranked than the Chorus but, when they come into view, they frequently appear to be lashed to that dome. Blind Tiresias (played by Lorinne Vozoff) sits mummy-like in a chair suspended over the audience. A large orb houses eerie video projections. Via that orb and those videos, the design team even depicts the Sphinx whose riddle helped set the ensuing tale's wheel of fate so ironically into motion.
We are speaking, of course, of the tale of Oedipus— the hero whose entrance into Thebes simultaneously saved the realm and brought it low. Now we are witnessing the wreckage.
The overall visual impulse of Keith Mitchell's scenic design is a hybrid of dystopic future and the ancient past. In the Odyssey Theatre's excellent production of Oedipus Machina, director Ron Sossi, his company and his visual design team use these trappings to recount a very old story indeed. A familiar one, too for even if you have never seen a version of Oedipus staged live, you most likely know the players from a lit class of yore. And the play's hugely grim climax is iconic.
This production is "inspired" by Ellen McLaughlin's Oedipus and adapted from the play by Sophocles. Sossi, while clearly enjoying the ability to use some technical effects, delivers a clear and uncluttered production which is focused on the dramatic endgame. One key encounter gives way to the next, and 95 minutes later, the citizenry of Thebes are far less blind than they were at the opening curtain. Well, most of them are, anyway.
It should be remembered that this play is a nifty whodunit as well as a study in character morale and cosmic irony. McLaughlin's dialogue is contemporary and unstilted, landing easily on the modern ear. Nothing here feels the least bit stuffy or overly-classical, but it's Oedipus all the same
In the title role, Joshua Wolf Coleman is a beacon of civic good will and moral righteousness. Dressed in a white robe, his head shaved and glistening, Coleman's Oedipus mixes easily with the populace yet has no problem brandishing his power to get the information he seeks. Perceived defiance from his brother-in-law Creon (Martin Rayner) ignites his rage and Creon's subsequent banishment is not the first time Oedipus has acted with rashness. While he clearly enjoys the pleasures of the flesh with his wife Jocasta (Dey Young) very much, he is also stubborn and pushes aside any advice from her that's designed to keep him from the truth. The man is still learning to be an effective ruler and his final ironic lesson is that circumstances of his own creation won't make this possible.
That truth is a beast and, whether or not he has any control over his own fate, our Oedipus is careening toward the light. Jocasta figures things out first, and the very appealing Young seems to crumple before our very eyes. When Oedipus finally learns the truth, the play's shattering climax is played partially in darkness. And then, through graphic but not overly gory makeup designed by Catelyn Chism, we witness the result.
Rayner and Young are both solid. Terry Woodberry has a wonderful swaggering turn as a shepherd who made his fortune through unusual political circumstances.
Audiences will meet a very different Oedipus in The Gospel of Colonus arriving shortly in a production at Ebony Repertory Theatre. For the present, however, we are treated to an exciting rendition of Oedipus who was plenty complex even before he engendered the Oedipus Complex. Kudos to Coleman and Sossi's entire team for bringing it to Odyssey audiences.