γνῶθι σεαυτόν

“Know thyself,”
he Temple of Apollo at Delphi

photo by Voices Found Repertory

by Jeff Grygny

Nobody knows what the first production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex looked like in Third Century BCE Athens, when theater attendance was required by law. But people love to speculate. We know from textual and archeological evidence that the actors wore masks, and that there was rhythmic singing and dance involved, but that’s about it. In a remarkable production of this 2300 year old tragedy, the energetic young company Voices Found Repertory brings together old and new theatrical forms to create an intriguing interpretation full of poetry, mystery, and humanity.

The familiar story— about a monarch who seeks to repair his broken state, oblivious to the fact that he himself is the corrupting cause—  might be relevant to our historical moment, but director Nick Hurtgen is hunting rarer game than obvious political satire. He attempts to bring a human dimension to the myth, while using ritual and movement to sound it’s uncanny depths, where archetypes lurk, their movements forming the substrate of our conscious lives. This is incredibly difficult to do without seeming obscure or pretentious, but these honest, committed actors pull it off with neither shrieking histrionics nor avant-garde floor-rolling.  Hurtgen has created a coherent movement vocabulary and a symbolic structure that overlays the plot and underscores the play’s themes with great integrity. The overall impression is of watching a play from an alien culture. Not all of the ritual gestures are instantly readable, but they clearly mean something, and that, combined with excellent mask-work and genuine performances, means we can connect with the action on a feeling level, even if we can’t put its meaning into words.

The action takes place around an altar, furthering the sense of a ceremony. Each actor wears a unique mask with large eye holes,  with the area around the actor’s eyes darkened, giving them the look of primitive vase paintings. In moments of great drama, some of the characters remove their masks. As in ancient Greek theater, the dialog sections alternate with movement sections, but the latter vary in tempo, mood, and style. Some are explicitly rituals, with characters representing the gods taking part; others reenact flashbacks, such as a rousing fight scene where the enraged Oedipus single-handedly slays King Creon’s entire entourage. An intimate scene between Oedipus and Jocasta has a stylized erotic intimacy,  complicated by Oedipus’ growing suspicion that his queen might be his mother. The actors bring seriousness to their roles; as the title character, Hannah Tähtinen dominates the stage with authority and stature, but underplays Oedipus’s arrogance with an evident desire to reassure the people that she is in control of the situation. The above-mentioned scene with Kim Emer’s Jocasta is subtly and beautifully performed. Jake Russel Thompson brings a hint of fun to the eccentric seer Tiresias, and Hurgen displays fine maskwork as a herdsman brought in as a witness. The chorus uses movement to show mixed feelings, signaling loyalty with their hands, for instance,  while signifying doubt with their masks.

Voices Found Repertory

The play’s darkness and self-doubt have a surprisingly contemporary ring, that might be even more poignant for this company of millennials. One movement section plays out to a bittersweet pop ballad; a fitting mood for someone whose life has been set up for disaster by forces beyond his control. Many philosophers have found in Oedipus an archetype of the modern identity, whose self-possession and fee will are illusions emerging from innumerable circumstances of historic, cultural, and economic forces: selfhood as a rigged game. Existentially, he is a failed hero who couldn’t face the truth— symbolized by putting out his own eyes. The strength of Hurgen’s directorial approach is to simultaneously act out all the play’s dimensions: social, personal, psychological, and ritual. The mysterious actions of the masked gods intimate the deep unknown forces that govern the psyches of even the most powerful men.

On a personal note: the play begins with the chorus chanting several words in Greek. I’m no Greek scholar, but I think I recognized the words for “pity” and “fear,” which happen to be the terms Aristotle used for the proper feelings elicited by tragedy to evoke the famous catharsis, or emotional purification. The theater of Ancient Greece was by all accounts extraordinarily powerful; the only time I’ve experienced anything like it was seeing Lee Breuer’s postmodern Oedipus at Colonnus, where the blind Oedipus was played by the black Gospel group the Five Blind Boys from Alabama, and the chorus was a bleacher-full of gospel singers dressed in colorful robes as if for church. The play’s text was incidental; the power of the singing brought the audience to tears time and again. After the show I felt wrung out, but cleansed.

Voices Found might not be aiming for that level of catharsis, but they have created an original interpretation of one of the foundational texts of Western civilization that displays its complexity and mystery, while making it fresh for a new generation.

Voices Found Repertory presents

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

playing through January 20 at the Underground Collaborative