In the Greek tragedy, King Oedipus is lauded among his citizens for one specific great feat of wisdom: answering a question posed by the tormenting Sphinx, who in response throws herself off a cliff. Yet the man who solved a riddle that had plagued a thousand men is terribly unaware of his own circumstances.
Here’s the tricky background: King Laius and his wife, Jocasta, were told a prophecy that their son would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. The two decided the best course of action would be to bind the feet of their infant son together with pins (lovely) and send him off with one of their servants, who was to abandon the child in the woods. Of course, the servant had a heart and decided instead to give the baby to a servant from another kingdom, who in turn presented it as a gift to his barren king and queen. This baby, of course, was Oedipus.
After Oedipus grows up, he learns of the prophecy but believes it applies to his adopted parents. And so he flees to avoid his destiny. On the road, he gets into a tussle with a stranger and kills him. When Oedipus arrives in a new kingdom, he solves the riddle of the Sphinx and then marries the recently widowed queen. Obviously, the queen is Jocasta, and the stranger Laius.
The entire 70-minute play is devoted to the untangling of this convoluted story, leading to Oedipus’ eventual realization of what he’s done. He is the primary victim, and yet he is also the perpetrator. Of course, the true agony in Oedipus is that if his biological parents hadn’t sent him away to skirt the prophecy, it never would have come true. It’s in their efforts to thwart this realization that they succumb to it.
As one would imagine, this is a deeply disturbing play. Because of its emotionally intense nature, it’s also a difficult production to stage. Duke City Repertory Theatre gives it an admirable effort, but the company falls short.
Where the production stumbles is in the directing, and to some extent the acting. There are some fine actors in the bunch, but in this play they all have looks of worry and fear perpetually glued to their faces. To be fair, the subject is certainly worrisome, but a greater range of emotion in the characters would help the piece move more fluidly.
Ezra Colón takes on the role of Oedipus, and he exudes a strong presence. It’s easy to watch him be a king, and he should be applauded for the ability to summon tears on stage. Yet even as Oedipus leaps from buoyant hope to devastating understanding in the script, Colón’s expressions remain mostly monotone. Frank Taylor Green, who plays Oedipus’ brother-in-law/uncle Creon as well as one of Oedipus’ subjects, fills his role with impressive fire. Amelia Ampuero is cast as Queen Jocasta (who also acts as a subject), and she is touching and regal. Lauren Myers, Abe Jallad and Katie Becker all fill multifarious side parts, and they do decent work. But the story moves as though a single key is being held down on a piano. It’s an intense note, but it loses its potency and fades with time.
Perhaps the question should be why Duke City Rep chose to put on this particular play. It takes guts to ask theatergoers to come see an ancient story about an unknowingly incestuous, murderous son. Unless there’s one hell of a raw performance to guide patrons through the nauseating twists and turns, maybe it’s too much to ask.