Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


There’s little arguing with a good story told well.

Williamston Theatre’s new adaptation of the Sophocles classic Oedipus Rex is a mystery whose solution the audience already knows. The eighty minutes of Oedipus, simplified, concern an immediate problem (a plague in the city-state of Thebes, over which the title character reigns) and the hard-fought road to discovering its cause (the unfortunate intersection of a few foreboding prophecies, which leads to the ruination of all involved). Yet Tony Caselli and Annie Martin’s adaptation still approaches the investigation with desperate severity and an appreciation for the agonies of discovery; faithful to the original text, the meat of the drama lies not in emotional repercussions, but the human flaws that drive us both away from our fates and toward understanding and truth, whatever the cost. The language of the script varies between lofty and humble, but rarely passes on an opportunity to engage in word play that presciently toys with the parallels between knowledge and sight, opening up the myriad thematic possibilities of the tale. However, as directed by Caselli, the production’s greatest accomplishment is in getting the viewer caught up in the intrigue — in an age of spoiler alerts, it’s remarkable to be reminded that in the best of stories, how can trump who, what, and where combined.

Much of this success is attributable to the performance of John M. Manfredi as Oedipus. Tasked with easing the considerable suffering of his cursed people, Manfredi’s king is relatably proud, compassionate, driven, insistent, devoted, and confident…everything but afraid, which we know is what he should be most. His singular goal and ever-shifting reactions bring incredible depth to a character whose fate is nonetheless fixed. The five performers in total take on multiple roles, and each contributes to the chorus in overlapping and winding narration; in the small Williamston space — for the first time ever arranged in the round — the actors’ emerging from and retreating to the periphery allows them to engage audience members as fellow observers and subjects. Daniel C. Walker’s simple set design helps the ruler-subject dialogue by evoking a public gathering place and, coupled with Dana L. White’s beautifully varied lighting design, cleverly keeps a key moment onstage rather than off.

The remaining handful of crucial characters are suggested by costume pieces layered over a neutral base; Holly Iler’s looks of airy linen gently but effectively recall ancient textiles. In her capacity as the prophet Tiresas, Sandra Birch tantalizes and frightens with her knowledge and refusal to share it; as Oedipus’s beloved and willfully ignorant queen, Jocasta, Birch’s clear and horrible moment of realization successfully signals the beginning of the end. Barton Bund is memorable as the royal Creon, who by virtue of assisting and advising Oedipus puts him in a position to be blamed when the facts don’t yet align; his high-stakes interactions with Manfredi are electric. Brandon Piper brings anachronistic kindness to his role as a messenger whose every attempt at a helpful reveal paints a bleaker picture, and ensemble member Jamie Weeder doubles as the play’s soundtrack, interjecting both spoken lines and cello accompaniment that blur the distinction between storytelling and immersion.

The journey of this Oedipus is straightforward, but the production is deceptive. Caselli and Martin’s script is so clean and accessible, the production elements so appropriately minimal, as to suggest an amateur or academic production could succeed with it as well. Indeed, it is a credit to the playwrights that this is probably true. Yet it would be a mistake to pass off this show as simple merely because its fine ensemble makes it look easy. By earning the audience’s rapt attention to its juicy, catastrophic plot and subtly insisting on the thematic undertones that make this myth a classic, the production should give a willing viewer food for thought that satiates well beyond the play’s end.


Post a Comment