Mostly Greek

Two productions successfully plumb for meaning in the classics

Jul 2, 2003 at 4:00 am
The Greek myths, or How Good People Do Bad Things Maybe Because of Fate, are explored in two very different area productions, only one of which you can still see. The Gospel at Colonus, presented by the Oedipus Project and Prison Performing Arts, finished its limited run on June 25 at the Eastern Missouri Correctional Center. Neil LaBute's bash: latterday plays, presented by (Mostly) Harmless Theatre, continues through July 13.

bash consists of three short one-acts, played without intermission. The opening monologue, Iphigenia in Orem, is the most successful of the trio. R. Travis Estes' portrayal of a traveling businessman who needs to tell his horrifying story is compelling and honest, and LaBute's final plot twist is unexpected and gut-wrenching. A Gaggle of Saints is interesting vocally but not dramatically; Estes as John and Erin Whitten as Sue speak directly to us -- but never to each other -- describing a festive night in New York City. LaBute's humor is deliberately disturbing. We laugh at Sue's naïveté and simultaneously feel wrong for laughing in the face of John's bigotry. The graphic descriptions of bashing a gay man are appropriately nauseating, but there's no driving reason for them to be telling us this story (as there was in Iphigenia). John and Sue don't need our reactions and aren't looking for absolution, so their reportage lacks motivation.

Whitten plays the final piece, Medea Redux, simply and convincingly. Given the title and the previous two plays, however, there's little to do but wait until the mode of murder is revealed. There are no surprises in this monologue, and sadly, the story of an abused girl driven to extreme revenge seems commonplace. That may be LaBute's point -- all of these stories could have just as easily been part of the evening news. If that's so, then why perform them? Only Iphigenia raises any real questions about fate and choice -- the other two pieces are more glorified journalism than dramatic texts.

The elaborate production elements of bash are excellent: a set that moves more than the actors, appropriately moody lighting, and detailed costumes that add to our understanding of the characters. Designers Dunsai Dai, Glenn M. Dunn and Evonne Baum, with director Trevor Biship, accentuate the theatrical elements in this collection of stories. LaBute riffs on Greek myths but chooses to ignore the innovation of Greek playwrights: storytelling became theater when Aeschylus added a second speaker and created dialogue.

Sophocles (who took dramatic dialogue to new heights by adding a third actor) wrote a series of plays about the Oedipus myth. His work is the raw material for The Oedipus Project at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, where a year's worth of study and rehearsal culminated in a production of the first act of The Gospel at Colonus, by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson. This gospel re-telling of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus shows an aged Oedipus seeking sanctuary. Accompanied by a marvelous jazz band (my twenty-something companion remarked "This band is awesome!"), the cast enthusiastically sang, danced and spoke their way through the captivating text. The play presents Oedipus as a man "ensnared in his own destiny" but reminds him: "You served your own destruction." Both lines resonate deeply in this performance setting. Beautiful a cappella singing, joyous dancing and haunting harmonies brought the dilemma of Oedipus and his daughters effectively to light.

Equally interesting was the post-show discussion, in which the performers (many of whom had previously performed in The Hamlet Project) related the story of Oedipus to their own lives. One reflected on how Oedipus wandered in the wilderness for twenty years before being granted sanctuary by King Theseus of Colonus. "We may also be seen as outcasts," he told his fellow actors, "but there may be people out there who will forgive us and take us as we are." Another performer, relating his nineteen years of incarceration to the years that Oedipus spent outside society, talked about how the Project taught him that he needs to serve and give back to the community.

Agnes Wilcox, director of Prison Performing Arts (of which The Oedipus Project is one aspect), has clearly inspired these men to look deeply for meaning in classic texts and to bring their enthusiasm for the theatrical process into their performances. The most haunting line of this production is delivered as Oedipus refuses to return to his previous home in Thebes, calling it "a prison outside these walls." Sitting in an actual prison and reflecting on my freedom to leave, this phrase evoked images of the walls we erect in our own lives -- borders of bigotry, privilege and fear. Both The Gospel at Colonus and bash explore these explosive borders and how the journey across them is troubling and difficult.