October 17, 2007

Seneca's Oedipus

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“Everything moves down a preset path/ Our first day determines our last.” This theme of fate was explored by the members of Classics 211 in their reading and performance of Seneca’s Oedipus. Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s rendering of the myth is supposed to be much closer to our general understanding of the tale than its more famous predecessor, composed by Sophocles. The students presented the play this weekend at Risley Theater.
The performance opened with the members of the Chorus; Clotho (Jennifer Wholey), Tisiphone (Tiffany Tsang), Lachesis (Erin Roberts), and Atropos (Kara Sadlik), strewn lifelessly across the stage, in order to portray the ubiquitous, devastating plague affecting the city of Thebes. This strident staging immediately presented an omen for the tragedy that was to come. The set was fashioned in a minimalist style, so as not to detract from the somber atmosphere already engendered by the lamentations of the characters themselves. Decaying skulls and bones, along with a smoldering fire in the front of the stage added to the foreboding environment.
Oedipus (Tom Mansell) emerged clad in army fatigues and combat boots, wielding a golden staff, to walk among the dead and consider what harsh fate could be in store for him, since he was left unscathed by the blight ravaging Thebes. Jocasta (Maria Jacobi) entered to try and aid her husband in coming to grips with the effects of the plague. Both actors successfully presented glassy, vacant stares as they considered the horrific deaths that were befalling the Thebans. The members of the Chorus then sprang to life, and, along with the Chorus Leader (Zoë Geltman), lamented the bad fortunes of the Thebans, and commented on the manner in which all was subject to “raw fate.” The Chorus and Jocasta were outfitted in muted suits of black and grey, which contributed to the dull, gloomy ambiance.
Creon (Benj Gilman), Jocasta’s brother, came to relay information gained from the oracle at Delphi about the cause of the plague, and declared that the killer of King Laius must be punished. Teiresias (Ronan Dunphy), a blind prophet, entered the stage hunched over, walking with difficulty, and dressed in tattered clothes His daughter, Manto (Kristin Gawera), sacrificed an animal so that Teiresias could analyze its entrails. This scene marks one of the largest discrepancies between Seneca’s and Sophocles’s versions of the story, and also one of the most difficult to stage. The sacrifice of the animal was effectively portrayed by two separate images of the animal, projected behind a screen, and by Manto producing a blood-soaked knife. Audience and Chorus alike were repulsed by the bloody entrails that Manto held up and described in gory detail. Teiresias resolved to send Creon to communicate with the spirit of Laius; another variation from Sophocles’s telling of the story.
We all know of the disturbing revelation that comes next, namely that Oedipus is the murderer of Laius and that Oedipus was his son by Jocasta. However, Oedipus was relieved when a Corinthian (Evangelos Papadimas) came to tell of the natural death of his supposed father, King Polybus of Corinth. The Corinthian also shared his knowledge that Oedipus was a foundling brought to the royal family by a Theban shepherd. The shepherd, Phorbas (Ionnis Ziogas), was summoned, and, under torture, identified Oedipus as the baby given to the Corinthian.
The pervasive and claustrophobic mood already present augmented our sense of the anguish of the recognition. The members of the Chorus truly presented the audience’s visceral reactions to Oedipus’s gouging out his eyes and Jocasta’s death at her own sword, by wincing in pain and having to avert their eyes. The somberness of the actors, along with the bleak setting and costumes, allowed for a successful portrayal of this tragic tale.