How refreshing to witness the austere honesty of a king such as Oedipus. When the oracle at Delphi commands him to rid ancient Thebes of the miscreant who is poisoning the body politic, Oedipus leaves no stone unturned in order to unmask the guilty party. Then, when he finds out that the evildoer is none other than himself, the king not only refuses to cover up the truth though there are many who beg him to do just that he insists on removing himself from office, but only after ordering his successor to banish him forever from the land he once proudly ruled.
Now compare this great monarch's actions to the devolved notion of leadership practiced today. Our mayor states that he didn't know that an employee of his campaign did the very illegal thing he was hired to do and if he did, it was not his fault. Our congressman doesn't know who paid for his trip abroad and was too busy to find out if the contribution was illegal and if it was, he is not to blame. Our president spends $10 million of tax money for a pantomime investigation to conveniently let him off the hook for his WMD charade, so that he will not have to take responsibility for something that everyone knows he was responsible for in the first place. Yes, compared to these political pygmies, Oedipus was a god.
So his fall from his noble position qualifies as a tragic event in the Empty Spaces Theatre Company's spirited production of Oedipus the King, at the outdoor courtyard of the Studio Theatre. For this Oedipus, played with scorching determination by John DiDonna, who also doubles as the play's director, is truly a man of the people. When Oedipus plummets, his people suffer. When he has his terrifying moment of anagnorisis finally discovering that he has indeed fulfilled the terrible destiny that he has always run from (that of killing his father and marrying his mother) the tremors are societal and not just personal.
Even during the time of Sophocles, some 2,500 years ago, the tale of Oedipus was well known. But over the eons, the play's meaning has changed with the times. The classic exegesis concerns Oedipus' tragic flaw and how even the highborn can be brought low by hubris. In the 20th century, much was made of the play's psychosexual content; thus the term "Oedipus complex" to describe a son's unnatural attachment to his mother. Then there has always been the work's exploration of whether fate or chance rules the realm of mankind.
But DiDonna has decided to bring the social aspects of the play to the surface with his insistence that the Theban chorus mirror all the angst and suffering of the royal family. Indeed, as soon as the thatched and bikini-clad denizens of the doomed city arrive on the scene to the pounding of drums, first to be raptured by the local priest (Jeff Lindberg) and then to plead with Oedipus to save them once again from their providence, it is clear that in this production, the politics will be local.
DiDonna and his choreographer, Anna DeMers, have also infused the company's actions with terrific theatrics that give the play a visual power that is stunning and graceful. Add Les Caulfield's puppets and an outdoor set illumined by oil flame lamps and the result is a journey to a different time a time before honest introspection was replaced by a cynical PR spin and loyalty to the truth was more important than clinging to temporal power. In Empty Spaces' Oedipus the King, we get to see not only how the mighty have fallen, but also how greatness must be underscored with a determination to do what is right and not what one can get away with.
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