The story goes that Peter Brook's production of Oedipus Rexat London's Old Vic Theater in 1968 infuriated lots of people, even fellow theater genius Laurence Olivier. The main object of offense? A 30-foot phallus towering above the stage in the play's final moments.
Sadly, we don't get such a literal manifestation of Freudian theory in Golden West College's production of Sophocles' Oedipus, but we do get a rather racy conclusion to Act I. Even though every member of the audience must know that King Oedipus has unwittingly killed his father, banged his mother, and brought a plague down on Thebes, director Tom Amen opts to end the first act with Oedipus (Mark Bedard) and Jocasta (Lindsey Mixon)—his wife and mother—locked in a passionate kiss.
That elevates the yeccch factor of the play. And that's a good thing—it's the one time this streamlined and smoothly digestible production feels genuinely disturbing. And this play should be as uncomfortable as bugs crawling underneath a detoxing junkie's skin. Talk all you want about Oedipus as great literature and Sophocles as a chronicler of the human condition: the truth is that we've got incest, patricide, suicide, baby abandonment, masochism, plagues, jealousy and revenge.
That's one reason Oedipusis such a theatrical institution. Academics call it the "perfect play," the Aristotelian epitome of time, place and action, and though that may be true, it isn't why Oedipus' story has fascinated us for 2,500 years. We like this play because, like the Old Testament, it revels in some of the most basely prurient human actions possible—all delivered in great language and a damn fine story.
But while this community-college production does a fine job of telling Sophocles' story, it lacks punch. Aside from the aforementioned kiss and an interesting use of the plague-ravaged chorus at the play's beginning (kudos to the folks behind the costumes, lighting and choreography), there isn't a lot of edge to Amen's vision. The result is a curiously sanitized Oedipus, one that stops at each important plot point but doesn't make the journey particularly interesting.
And this is—by any measure—a fascinating play, and one that on some thematic levels is as relevant today as it was during Sophocles' time. For instance, we still like porn. But there's a deeper and more profound link as well, one that pervaded Athenian culture of the time: the conflict between a traditional worship of mythical gods and a more rationally based forum where ideas could be freely debated.
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That struggle infuses Oedipus' character. While he, like most Thebans, believes that destiny is inescapable, he refuses to live as if he believes it. He is the smartest man onstage, the solver of great riddles, and if there is a tragic flaw to his design, it's his insatiable appetite for the truth.
So fast-forward 2,500 years. We may have computers, microwave ovens and cable TV, but we still live in a culture that yearns to believe in oracles, whether it's the ridiculous armchair psychic predictions in the tabloids, fundamental interpretations of biblical prophecies, or our obsession with the existence of alien races.
It's a collective abdication of personal responsibility linked, perhaps, to a fear of the truth. That's why Oedipus remains such a fascinating character, and that's why Sophocles' play is such an incredible piece of theater. It's randy, it's racy, it's sexy, and it's depraved, but it's also about a man who yearns for the truth at any cost. The real lesson of Oedipus is that the truth is out there, and it will set you free. But the price for that freedom is the sobering realization that the truth may be more intense, painful and lonely than any of us care to bear.
Oedipus Rex at Golden West College's Mainstage Theater, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach, (714) 895-8150. Thurs.-Sat., March 14-16, 8 p.m. $8.50-$10.50.