November 14, 2016

Oedipus at the Black Box Theatre

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On the evenings of November 10, 11 and 12, an all-student cast took to the stage in the Schwartz Center’s Black Box Theatre to share the well-known but often misunderstood story of Oedipus Rex. Prof. Frederick Ahl directed the play, which he translated himself from a relatively early version of Sophocles’ tale. Thanks to Ahl and the Department of Classics, the production found a place for all who wished to participate, and some had no prior acting experience. While this “obviously has its perils,” as Ahl explained before the show’s beginning, the play was very well acted all the same.

The very name of the title character makes most people cringe, but this production emphasized that the play is about far more than the accidental incest it is known for. In many ways, it was more focused on the efforts of Oedipus, played by Griffin Smith-Nichols ’19, to find his place as a ruler and to learn about his past. Oedipus was left to die as an infant, but his adoptive parents Polybus and Merope took him in. When he consults the oracle at Delphi to determine who his parents were after a drunk man called him a bastard, Oedipus is told that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Wanting to avoid this deeply disturbing fate, Oedipus continues on his journey to avoid those whom he believes are his parents, only to do just as the oracle said. Oedipus kills Laios, his biological father, and breaks the Sphinx’s curse on Thebes by solving her riddle. For saving the city, he is made king and marries Jocasta, his biological mother.

The play opens on Oedipus’ efforts as the King of Thebes to reassure his subjects regarding a plague afflicting their city, but the plague itself soon becomes a secondary issue. Oedipus sends his scheming brother-in-law Creon (Nathan David Chazan ’19) to consult the oracle at Delphi for advice on how to end this plague, and Creon reports that the killers of Laios are still at large and must be found. Oedipus becomes obsessed with finding out who the killers are and curses them, whomever they may be. Teiresias (Yunqi Tian ’17), a blind seer, is the first to blame Oedipus for this murder and even suggests that Laios was Oedipus’ father. This encounter sets Oedipus on a path that eventually leads him to believe that his wife Jocasta (Luby Kiriakidi ’18) is also his mother.

Ahl’s translation leaves a bit of doubt as to whether the events unfolded just as Oedipus believed, as some of the details shared by the sole witness to the murder of Laios do not align with the account Oedipus gives of his confrontation. This witness, the Herdsman Slave (Francesca LaPasta ’19), had previously stated that he saw more than one person kill Laios, and Oedipus killed a man on his own. However, Oedipus clings to Jocasta’s statement that her child was exposed to die in the same place from which the Corinthian (Angaelica LaPasta ’19) claims he took Oedipus, even though the Corinthian contradicts his own statements several times. While there is enough evidence to suggest that Laios may have been Oedipus’ father and Jocasta could be his mother, it is never confirmed, yet Oedipus considers no other possibility. It is ironic that Oedipus is revered throughout Thebes for his ability to solve riddles but is unable rationally to solve the riddle of his own past.

Smith-Nichols’ portrayal of Oedipus was excellent, and made Oedipus’ serious emotional turmoil feel real and almost relatable, aside from the more unsavory details of his situation. He was constantly engaged and his facial expressions effectively conveyed his emotions even when he was not speaking, bringing Oedipus’ fear, confusion and distress to life. Kiriakidi’s performance as Jocasta was equally impressive, and her frustration with Oedipus’ constantly giving into fear was very well-developed. Chazan was quite melodramatic as the devious Creon, but in a way that made the tragedy more entertaining.

This production of the well-known story made the tale of Oedipus far more devastating than revolting, but emphasized the lines most likely to make the audience cringe to provide comic relief. Furthermore, the messenger (Lizzie Lee ’19) who delivered the news of Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’ self-blinding was oddly cheerful and found the events somewhat funny, which was naturally bizarre to watch but made Oedipus’ utter devastation a little less heavy.

Oedipus is a very difficult play, and the Department of Classic’s production was quite impressive, especially considering that it was the first play in which several of the cast members had ever performed. All, including the chorus members and the maid (Erial Zheng ’18), were strong actors, but Smith-Nichols and Kiriakidi delivered the play’s standout performances. Professor Ahl’s interpretation of Oedipus was unique and compelling, and the characters’ struggles were made both powerful and believable by the student actors.

Emily Fournier is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].