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Stage Review : 'Oedipus,' 'peron': How Tyrants Die

July 22, 1987|ROBERT KOEHLER

How tyrants rule is a question political artists have struggled with for millennia. How tyrants die is perhaps less well explored. Director Reza Abdoh, with his new repertory productions of Sophocles' "King Oedipus" and Copi's "Eva Peron," at Theatre Upstairs, is suggesting that it might also be a more interesting question.

It may be impossible for any English-language staging of "Oedipus" to project the sad, majestic power felt by Sophocles' audience.

That's why writer-director Steven Berkoff's adaptation of the Oedipal saga to an abstract modern form for his play "Greek" (seen at the Matrix in 1982) was so shrewd: he reclaimed the original's emotive force for modern ears.

Abdoh has gone ahead as if "Greek" never existed, and stuck to the familiar-sounding, traditional text. He has ritualized the play instead of drawing loud character types. He has integrated the long monologues into the dramatic momentum of the story. He has, above all, turned the focus almost entirely on Sophocles' preoccupation, which was how a king facilitates and faces his own decay.

The show, even with a clearly American cast, feels Greek. It makes the Berkoff version, in retrospect, not so much false as glib. Now all Abdoh needs is Berkoff's Matrix cast, or a cast of that caliber, and he would have a world-class work.

Abdoh, though, has worked for the better part of four years with this company, and generally knows its strengths and weaknesses. One of his crowning abilities is setting stage pictures that move and sing with a sense of religious awe. He prefers performing spaces that allow for wide-screen pictures--the eye could barely take in the vistas created in his earlier productions of "A Medea," "The Sound of a Voice" or "King Lear."

The Theatre Upstairs space isn't as overwhelming as Abdoh's choice of an indoor basketball court for "Medea"; but the theater's effectively disorienting acoustics, its white floors curving into white walls, aided by Bill O'Shaughnessy's stark, expressionist lights (often positioned on the floor, casting enormous shadows on the back wall), frame and accentuate the rituals in ways probably no other place could.

This casts its own Greek spell, the belief that power and vision are generated by the place itself. Artson Hardison's king, brooding in his chair, seems to be on a precipitous promontory. When Tom Fitzpatrick's Teiresias, Sophocles' blind prophet of doom, stumbles on the scene led by a horseman (Brendan Doyle, holding a beautiful wire-sculpted horse that wittily recalls "Equus"), it feels like a vast landscape viewed by the gods. When Meg Kruszewska's chorus woman dances or kills Jocasta the queen (Ruth Cameron), we're in a temple, in close-up.

Abdoh, with a fine showman's sense, saves his best image for last: blind Oedipus, wandering off with two branches for canes, walks by Teiresias, as they are lit only by the dying flame of a large candle.

The bold artistry from everyone here has to mute any complaints about actors not quite being up to the task. I kept wishing Fitzpatrick were Oedipus (he also plays a marvelous Creon), mainly because it's hard to believe in Hardison.

The latter's forced emotion gives way later, however, to some truly amazing moments of kingly self-destruction--and not just the blinding scene.

Jessica Peterson plays her priestess and messenger with her usual cynical smirk; she seems to have no other expression (though it works nicely for the messenger).

Cameron, on the other hand, is the first Jocasta in memory who suggests a wife with her own epic pain. Kruszewska is ideal for Abdoh's game plan: an actress with a classical face, and a singing/speaking voice that fills a room. Music by Jim Berenholtz is majestic.

Copi's "Eva Peron" is a sly, unlikely companion for Greek tragedy. But like "Oedipus," it drops us in the back rooms when the palace walls are caving in.

Same space, but what a different effect. Buenos Aires, 1952, and Eva (Peterson) is dying of cancer. (It would be nice if the program provided information on the setting, as well as on Copi, an exiled Argentine, whose work has never been shown in the United States before.)

Eva's ravaging, wasted mother (Anya Lund) wants to get at the safe deposit boxes in Switzerland before the assets are frozen, but Eva won't give her access. It's about the only power she has left.

Juan Peron (Fitzpatrick) smokes and coughs a lot, sitting in a far corner of the room: He's Hitler, by Beckett. The harried nurse (Kruszewska) is up to her gills in egotistical invalids. Ibiza (Hardison), Eva's lover, stands around in his ivory tux, swishing his giant snifter of cognac. It's the twilight of the gods, but Ibiza seems to be the only one ready for it.

Abdoh loves having characters spill things on the floor; when mother flings cash all over the place, it's an overdone director's touch, but true to Copi's view: The powerful dispose of themselves as well as they do the masses.

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