It doesn't take a Joseph Campbell to look to primordial or prehistoric sources for some kind of context in a world that increasingly feels like it lacks all meaning. And so when it comes to theater, the one performance medium that was truly born in the age of the great myths, we have three of the county's top storefront companies opting for plays with a Greek bent in these times of war, pestilence and the Patriot Act.
The Chance Theater is producing Oedipus at Colonus, the lesser-known second part of the towering trilogy Sophocles wrote about the flawed king who reigned during a time of war and plague brought on in large part by his own stupid decisions. This weekend, the Hunger Artists closes an updating of Euripides' Medea called The Medea Project, a play that isn't about global conflict as much as the personal conflict that can drive a person to acts of desperate fury. And the Insurgo Theater Movement is mounting a 1960s musical based on Superman. And before you start thinking that's a Greco-reach, wait until you hear Insurgo big cheese John Beane explain the connection.
But first, The Medea Project, a thoroughly contemporary retelling of one of the most heinous deeds in all literature: the killing by Medea of her own children in a frantic attempt to exact revenge upon her husband, Jason, who has lied to her and dumped her for another woman. It's an archetypal revenge play, but playwright/adapter Kristina Leach says she resisted the temptation of trying to explain or justify Medea's actions in favor of a story that shows how someone can be so in love and still do such horrible deeds.
"The play always starts when all the shit has already happened and then it's over, but I wanted to go with the actual myth, which is actually quite lovely, of how Jason and Medea met and how they were completely in love," Leach said. "There's one account of them standing in the forest, not being able to speak to each other because of how in love they were."
So how does a person go from ecstatic rapture to horrific abomination? Easy: love stinks.
"People can do really fucked-up things because they're in love," Leach said. "I think we've all been there at 3 in the morning, and you call that person, and they're not home, and you get that horrible, acidic feeling in the pit of your stomach that you can't run from. And you go psycho. There's just a switch in the brain that can make it happen. I think at every human core, there's a propensity to go off, and that's what I was most fascinated by."
It's that willingness to explore the darker reaches of the human psyche that makes the Greek playwrights such fertile material to explore these days.
"All the emotions the Greeks plugged into their plays are still very relevant and applicable today," Leach says. "Particularly now. It just feels like humans are capable of such dreadful things at any cost, and when you see that people were writing about [similar things more than 2,000 years ago], you have to wonder why we haven't learned anything yet. I would really love for [our civilization] to get to the point where we're truly horrified by Greek tragedy, but I don't think it's going to happen any time soon. We're still fighting against furies, and we're still at war with one another and with everyone."
While The Medea Projectexplores brutality and horror on a personal level, the Chance Theater chose Oedipus at Colonusin large part because of its global implications. This is Sophocles' Valentine of sorts to his country and his hometown of Colonus. Oedipus, blinded, exiled, in disgrace for the plague he wrought upon his war-torn nation, returns as a kind of conciliatory figure to the battle-weary Thebans. This middle tragedy of his Theban cycle, coming between Oedipus the King and Antigone, was Sophocles' final play, and there is an air of almost Buddhist acceptance and wisdom to Oedipus. At the end of his life, looking (metaphorically, of course) at the next one, Oedipus realizes that, yep, life sure is fucked and the Gods are a fickle bunch of bastards, but it's our choices and our decisions that truly matter, something not lost on the folks at the Chance.
"We selected Oedipus at Colonus specifically due to the timeliness of the play's themes and current world events—particularly Sophocles' presentation of civilization's choices between justice and injustice, as well as responsibility and irresponsibility, and the consequences of those choices," says Annie Mezzacappa, the theater's outreach director.
Superman is a character we may associate more with Lex Luthor and The Daily Planet, but archetypically speaking, he is nothing less than the 20th Century's answer to Hercules.
"Superman was created with purposeful Herculean roots—destined to be a defender of humanity and yet never quite one of them," says John Beane, who is directing Superman the Musical. "The famous quote from [co-creator Jerry] Siegel is: 'All of a sudden, it hits me. I conceive a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard of rolled into one. Only more so.'
"Like Hercules, Superman faces a never-ending series of labors," Beane continues. "He defends a people that he could destroy. Like the Greek gods in general, he is personally bold in his heroics—he wears no masks. But, also like the gods, he dons a mortal guise for his personal interaction with them."
Now, a comic-book character in tights whose main weaknesses are journalism, Kryptonite and Lois Lane is a far cry from the guy who cleaned more horse shit in a single day than, well, anyone else. But Beane's got some great points that illustrate why a character like Superman, even in these Punisher anti-hero days, is so appealing to the angels of our better natures, who do yearn for heroes and justice.
"He comes from Krypton (Olympus), a secret place in the sky where powerful beings and their emotions, intelligences and corruptions dictate the fate of worlds," Beane says, really pulling out the research when he mentions that in Greek, Kryptos means a "hidden, secret place."
Superman also has other similarities to Prometheus (helping humanity at personal risk, etc.) and Apollo and the other sky gods, Beane continues. "He has also been the subject of a somewhat-famous dissertation on similarities between himself and the Changeling of Greek myths: non-humans raised by humans who become their champions. Hell, the greatest admitted Superman rip-off of all times—Captain Marvel—spoke a magic word ("SHAZAM!") to get his power that was an acronym for almost entirely Greek mythological figures, including Hercules, Achilles, Zeus, Atlas and Mercury."
The S stands for a Jew: Solomon. But don't get me started on them.
The Medea Project at Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. $12-$15; Oedipus at Colonus at Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 777-3033. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through June 13. $15-$17; Insurgo Theater Movement presents Superman the Musical at Maverick Theater at The Block At Orange, 20 City Blvd. W., Orange, (714) 634-1977. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through June 13. $13-$18.
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