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A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)
By Elyse Sommer
Since Sam Shepard's A Particle of Dread runs just 85 minutes there's no intermission for stage hands to mop up the dripping evidence of horrible deeds. Instead, our first image is of Rae as a blind and bedraggled Oedipus. Loking mysteriously ominous in blood-spattered dungarees and thick goggles, he's the one doing the mopping up and talking about how he got the enlarged foot that accounts for his limp. Not a pretty picture!
As Tamburlaine's killings are all off-stage so are the ones in Shepard's play. And as Tamburlaine director Michael Boyd used a stylistic blood spilling device, frequent Shepard collaborator and director Nancy Meckler sets the scene by hanging blood soaked garments and body parts in a corner of the stage.
Given Shepard's generally more contemporary work, it's natural to wonder just what that title tag, Oedipus Variations, means. Is this an adaptation of Sophocles' play about the mythical Greek king who killed his father, married his mother, stabbed his eyes out and was exiled? The closes answer is that this is Shepard back in his young try-anything, experimental mode. The variations are sort of, but not really, an adaption. Yet, you will be encountering the characters and the situation described in the famous myth.
Oedipus, King of Thebes as well as Queen Jocasta and Antigone do appear but as a means to symbolize how people in different times and places get caught up in getting in touch with what makes them act and feel the way they do. In short, as in many of his other plays, most notably his career-making, Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child, they try to dig up haunting, long-buried secrets. The result is a far cry from a straightforward plot, but an hour and a half of bits and pieces — what jazz men call riffs. As we jump around between past and present links between the characters from ancient Greece and a murder of a gangster in the Mojave Desert become chillingly apparent.
Rae in his contemporary Otto persona is a rather mild wheelchair bound man fascinated with accounts of a highway killing that seem to kick up vague nightmarish dreams. Brid Brennan and Judith Roddy also do double duty. Brennan actually triple tasks. Watching her segue from caged lover of the modern segment's gangster to Queen Jocasta to laid-back Otto's wife makes for some of the most watchable scenes in these often opaque "variations." Roddy is excellent both as Antigone, and as Otto's daughter Annalee caught up in her own Greek drama as the wife of a man in jail for having killed their baby sitter
The myth-like macabre opening scene turns into a more realistic contemporary murder mystery. The formerly blood soaked abattoir is now a highway covered with bodies left by a murderous hitchhiker who's played with maniacal zest by Lloyd Hutchinson (who also takes on various other roles from past and present). The law and order team features Matthew Rauch as a forensic investigator and Jason Kolotouros as police office Harrington.
Designer Conway has carved a neat little room into the tiled wall of his set for Neil Martin and Todd Livingston to underscore the mood of the piece and abet fluid scene to scene transitions —. Martin (he music's composer) on the cello and Livingston on a Dobro Slide guitar.
Ms. Meckler is clearly attuned to Mr. Shepard's intriguing concept. Though her staging respects the basically plotless play, she nevertheless uses evocative images and guides the actors to reveal the connecting threads. But despite the skillful direction, evocative macabre atmosphere and sterling performances, Mr. Shepard's aim to create a jazz-like riff on a famous myth, hits too many strident and ungainly notes. While Shepard plays are never theater lite, A Particle of Dread takes opaqueness to a new level without being as compelling as his previous plays. A play should indeed have something meaningful to say and challenge the viewer, but it should also be entertaining. Looking back on a busy week, I ffound the twice as long and four times as bloody Tamburlaine more memorable and entertaining than A Particle of Dread.
For more about some of those plays that we've reviewed, and an overview of Shepard's life and career, see our Sam Shepard Backgrounder .