Thursday, January 30, 2014

Greeks to Us


Oedipus the King by Sophocles is probably the most famous of the Greek classics. But if it isn’t performed (as it apparently hasn’t been for a long time on North Coast stages) it can become just a bad academic memory, or a remote and daunting rumor. We may forget it is first and foremost a play to be experienced live on stage.

 That’s one reason Michael Thomas decided to direct it at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, along with Aristophanes’ Women in Congress, a satirical comedy with sly contemporary relevance. Each play is about an hour long, separated by an intermission. They open this week.

 Another reason is that Thomas really likes these plays. “Oedipus is one of the greatest mystery stories ever told,” he said. “We get all these pieces of the puzzle as we inch towards the horrifying truth.” He finds Women in Congress hilarious and “eerily apt for today. It’s about how women take over a ‘do-nothing’ Congress because the men have been such failures.” He selected modern translations that eliminate arcane references and concentrate on story and character.

 “There are a lot of parallels to today in the comedy, and the tragedy deals with ageless issues. I want the community to have the opportunity to see them.” This daring double bill opens at NCRT on Thursday January 23, and plays weekends through February 15.

Review: All the Stage’s A World 
Greek revival at North Coast Rep

 In ancient Greece, Athenians of all classes and in great number attended the tragedies and comedies of the spring festival. Much of what we know today as theatre began there, including a profound purpose.

 Through the vision and artistry of one playwright combined with the performances of skilled actors, society could examine itself: its rational and irrational powers, its strengths and weaknesses, good and evil in complex human combination. The plays evoked thought and debate as well as tears and laughter. In simple and mysterious ways, the theatre was essential to the health of their society.

 Now some 2500 years later, two plays from the Greek golden age are on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka: the tragedy of Oedipus the King by Sophocles and the comedy Women in Congress by Aristophanes. They are each played on a simple set, with largely the same group of actors.

 There is plague in Thebes as Oedipus the King begins, and citizens appeal to their king Oedipus to heal the city, as he has before. Oedipus is told that to do so he must find and banish the killer of his predecessor.

 Calder Johnson is a regal but impulsive Oedipus—sincere and determined but arrogant and impatient, whose good heart battles with his hot head. Shelley Stewart is an impressive queen Jocasta, Dmitry Tokarsky is her inscrutable brother Creon, and Bob Service is the blind prophet Teiresias.

 Director Michael Thomas approaches this tragedy fairly realistically, as a kind of murder mystery. Without the ritual and special effects of some productions, the emphasis is on clarity. The actors speak clearly and directly.

 This approach is also served by the modern adaptation by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay. It lacks the poetry of some translations but preserves the important imagery of health and sickness, light and dark, sight and blindness, as well as the basic story that has reverberated through the ages.

 The opening night audience responded audibly to revelations (especially when they got the implications before the characters did.) They left the theatre with enough of what they needed to ponder and debate the questions of fate and free will, morality and destiny that this play has always inspired.

Comedy can be a funhouse mirror reflecting human weaknesses and excesses in daily life. Aristophanes is the original comedian of sex and politics, and in Women in Congress, of sexual politics.

 The women of Athens don their husbands’ cloaks to take over Congress and start a revolution. While in disguise they hear what men say to each other about them. The roots of commedia dell’arte are especially discernable in this modernized version by Jules Tasca. Playing in masks as the Greeks did, Shelley Stewart is the vibrant leader Praxagora and Arnold Waddell is her befuddled husband Blepyrus.

The comic cast includes Taylen Winters, Toodie SueAnn Boyle, Jon Edwards, Alyssa Rempel, Pam Service, and Jennifer Trustem. Scenic design is by Calder Johnson, costumes by Caroline Allendar, lighting by David Tyndall. Oedipus the King and Women in Congress (each about an hour long) play weekends at NCRT through February 15.

  Additional Notes

My NCJ Stage Matters column this week covers three plays: the Sophocles/Aristophanes double bill at North Coast Rep, and one of the two plays done this past weekend by North Coast Prep, within a theme about an important purpose of theatre.  All in 850 words, and for the same low, low price.

So there's a bunch of stuff that didn't make the cut.  The classical Greek era is always fascinating to contemplate--a mere century in human history, which seemingly invented theatre as we know it from a variety of sources, and then pretty quickly disappeared.  The roots include religious ritual and the oratory of a democracy, along with other less definable traditions--but the combination is unique.
Christopher Plummer & Irene Pappas in 1968 film Oedipus

Then there is the legacy, based on the small number of plays that survived, and essentially one source on how it was all done: from Aristotle, known chiefly as a philosopher, but we in the biz know him as the first theatre critic and journalist.

The few plays we have versus the number we know were written and performed is a daunting problem. Aeschylus is thought to have written 90 plays--there are titles of 79 preserved.  Only seven plays survived.  Euripides wrote at least 88 plays.  Eighteen survived, with another of contested authorship.  Aristophanes wrote 40; we have 11.

Then there's Sophocles, whose long life and career almost span the entire classical period.  He wrote more than 123 plays, of which we have the titles of 114.  He won at least 72 first prizes. Yet only seven of his plays survive in complete form.

I recall a teacher in college musing that we should have faith that the right plays survived, that the best always survives.  That is of course an untestable hypothesis, and I confess I felt it mysteriously apt at the time, though now I wonder if that's not just wishful thinking.  Some notable theatre experts believe Oedipus the King is the best play ever written.  But who is to say there wasn't an even better one among the lost?

The plays were performed in the annual spring festival, perhaps the first combined religious, civic and artistic event.  The audience (limited to men, but attendance was a civic and religious duty) arrived at daybreak to see a full day of theatre--usually 3 tragedies capped by a comedy. This may not have been as grim as it sounds--not all of the tragedies ended unhappily.  In Athens the government paid the production costs, and the actors were paid year round.  They underwent extensive training and were highly skilled. There were cash prizes for the top three playwrights, as awarded by a five judge panel.  However, the judges were probably strongly influenced by the audience reception.

These were plays in our sense, broadly speaking.  But they had a relationship to societal beliefs about the Greek gods that are difficult for us to fully appreciate.  From where we are we can perhaps see it as a combination of religion and archetypal psychology. But it does seem that religious ceremonies were an early model. At first the plays were done with one actor and the chorus.  Aeschylus introduced a second actor (which meant there could be dramatic dialogue between individuals), and Sophocles a third.  The actors wore masks (NCRT uses them for the Aristophanes, but not for Oedipus.  In Oedipus the chorus represents the people of Thebes, but there are speaking roles for specific members.)

 The Theban plays of Sophocles were written over several decades.  Scholarship suggests he wrote them out of order: Antigone when he was 54 and Oedipus the King maybe 15 years later.  The middle play, Oedipus at Colonus, wasn't performed until after his death at the age of 90.

Oedipus the King has been more popular on stage than it seems to be now.  In 1946 it was one of Laurence Olivier's most fabled triumphs.  When Christopher Plummer played Oedipus in the 1968 film (viewable on YouTube), it was his third performance as the character.  The filming took place in an ancient isolated amphitheatre in Greece, during the first days of a repressive military dictatorship.  All Greek artists in every field were in danger of arrest.  The great Irene Pappas was to play Jocasta, but she had to flee the country. (Lili Palmer took the role.)  The production actually harbored a number of Greek artists, poets and intellectuals who escaped Athens and were hiding out as extras.    

There are plenty of translations, adaptations and modernizations of classic Greek plays.  Most of what I can recall seeing here on the North Coast falls into that third category.  In 2011 HSU hosted the CSU East Bay production of Xtigone, a retelling of Antigone by Chicago playwright Nambi E. Kelley.  In 2008--back when Arcata Playhouse hosted adult plays--the Ghost Road Company of Los Angeles presented a modernized Elektra based on Aeschylus.  Also in 2008, HSU produced Helen, a play by Ellen McLaughlin based on Euripides, directed by Margaret Thomas Kelso.
Darcy Daughtry in Helen 

Of the translations of Oedipus the King I have at hand in my Fortress of Solitude, the one with the most poetic language is by Richard C. Jebb. Olivier performed with a translation by the great 20th century poet W.B. Yeats; Christopher Plummer's film used a translation by poet Paul Roche.

  But none I've seen is as plain and streamlined as the adaptation by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay, the script used in the NCRT production.  This has the virtue of clarity in the basic action of the play, and it does preserve the important imagery of light and dark, sight and blindness, health and sickness that emphasize the play's profound ironies.  But a lot of Sophocles the poet is lost, and at times the plainness of the language got inadvertent laughs on opening night.  (Speaking of opening night, it almost got off to a disastrous start when after an ill-advised snatch of the Supremes and unnecessary short opening scene, the lights came up too quickly on the King struggling into his too-short costume, and we saw Oedipus in his underpants.)

As for the Aristophanes, the comedy now at NCRT is based on his play Ecclesiazuase.  Appearing as the Greek classical period was ending, it bears marked resemblances to his Lysistrata.  British translations naturally enough called it Women in Parliament.  There are however several new versions calling it Women in Congress, especially by women.  (It's a nice pun that way as well, since political and sexual congress are its topics.)  The version at North Coast Rep is by Jules Tasca, a journeyman regional playwright ( this site says he's written 102 published plays: 12 full length and 92 one acts; the math is off somewhere, but one assumes all have survived so far.)

Tasca's experience acting in a commedia dell'arte troupe shows in this version.  But it is not only a simplified version--the utopian changes wrought by the women who take over Athens are played pretty straight.  While appealing to us (especially in the nation state of Arcata), at least some commentators believe Aristophanes was satirizing Plato's utopian Republic, so his view was more jaundiced.
from a production using this translation by Amanda
Krauss and Jess Miner 

The NCRT production is pleasantly comic, with witty lines and energetic performances.  As she recites the utopian changes, Shelley Stewart makes you want to believe again. The rest of the cast performed well, savoring their comic bits. But from the beginning the show was underlit for a comedy, and though I noticed it immediately and then forgot about it, it may have had a depressing effect.  Comedies need to be bright. Seeing them shouldn't be work.  But given the lighting limitations at NCRT, and the difficulty of resetting lights from the moodier first play during the intermission , there's probably little they could have done about it.

  I guess I don't mind these tinker toy adaptations because these plays are so rarely seen, and they should be seen and experienced on stage. And as remote as they are in time, they probably do need streamlining and reorienting. On the other hand, Tasca has written new versions of Hamlet and Macbeth --and on Shakespeare I lean the other way.  You better be better than the Bard if you mess with him, and that's unlikely.

No comments: