Oedipus Apparatus Is Too Much of a Not-Quite Good Thing

Oedipus (Mitch Eagles) really loves his mom.
Oedipus (Mitch Eagles) really loves his mom. PHOTO BY JOHN LAMB

Oedipus Apparatus

Written by Lucy Cashion. Directed by Lucy Cashion. Presented by West End Players Guild through April 30 at the Union Avenue Christian Church (733 North Union Boulevard; www.westendplayers.org). Tickets are $20 to $25.

There are many ideas at work in Lucy Cashion's adaptation of Oedipus Tyrannus, and much ambition as well. The entire basement of the Union Avenue Christian Church is given over to the set, a long runway with a hollow box made of scaffolding in the center, so tall it almost brushes the lighting rig. This runway is flanked on both sides by narrow strips of mulch-like material, which hold long chains of unusual objects: a bicycle wheel's frame, a sexton, a lantern. A series of risers that partially hide sleeping bodies waits at one end of the room; a table with multiple chairs at the other. This is cursed Thebes, currently suffering from a plague that fells citizens daily.

It's a promising set-up. But instead of leaping into the story, we begin by listening to a priestess (Rachel Tibbetts) recite an address on approaching death mindfully. While press materials claim this is taken from a Buddhist nun's guided meditation on death, it comes across as vaguely New Agey ... not to mention time-wastey. I thought I was going to see a tragedy that has been performed for 2,500 years, not be subjected somebody's Instagram musings on YOLO theory.

This is a pattern that repeats throughout the evening. Promising moments give way to repetitive digressions that break the momentum of the story, and Cashion's ambitions as writer — and the excellent work of her actors — are undercut by her ambitions as director.

King Oedipus (Mitch Eagles) has sent his brother-in-law Creon (Will Bonfiglio) to the oracle at Delphi to discover the cause of the plague that is currently killing his subjects. Creon returns with the news that the plague is the gods' punishment for Thebes never solving the death of King Laius. Oedipus resolves to settle this cold case, unaware that he himself is the murderer.

Eagles is fussy and sharp, and he drags the scaffold with him as he moves up and down the runway questioning Creon. It's a potent image: The scaffold is the machinery of the curse that fell upon his father and will destroy him, and his entire family, for generations. There is nothing Oedipus can do to forestall the curse or escape destruction.

If you're unfamiliar with the backstory of that curse, Oedipus' daughter Antigone (Alicen Moser) will fill you in. She serves two roles: the usher who leads you to the set while telling you ghastly stories from her family history, and the performer constructing those chains of objects. They are her family tree made real, each object representing an ancestor who has offended the gods in some way and brought Thebes to its current ruin. In one magical scene, Antigone ponders where her father fits in her family tree; he's represented by a wooden, foot-shaped shoe-stretcher, a fine joke for the classicists in the audience. ("Oedipus" means "swollen foot" in Greek.)

The prophets discuss the goings-on in Thebes with Creon. - PHOTO BY JOHN LAMB
The prophets discuss the goings-on in Thebes with Creon.

We then cut to the great oracles of the Greek world (Tiresius, the Sphinx, Athena, Artemis), sitting around the table with Sigmund Freud and discussing the Laius murder. Their intro is lifted straight from The View, and they share the same shouty and over-talking tendencies. They add little but levity to the performance.

And that's not the only part of the show that seems mostly designed to waste time. For me, the real problem arises when Joe Taylor, who provides the music, stops the action for the sideline and demands that the cast "reset the machine." The scene is performed again, with Creon and Oedipus replacing some of their dialogue with the mechanical laws of the five simple machines (pulley, lever, wheel, wedge and screw).

Twice is bad enough. For this audience member, when the machine is reset for a third time, I want only resolution. When it's reset the fourth time, I want vengeance. And then the machine is reset an impossible and inhumane fifth time, and I want my evening back. There's experimental theater, and there is experimentation on your audience.

Ultimately, for all its aspirations, Oedipus Apparatus feels most like a reality show, a form of entertainment lower than dog fighting. The manipulative editing of the constant restarts is compounded by the overused polyphony-turned-cacophony of all five oracles breaking out in simultaneous monologues. Storytelling and dramatics are cast aside for shouting and precision blocking, even as the play stretches out to two hours with no intermission.

Even so, the gorgeous, harrowing ending of Sophocles is almost satisfying here. Maggie Conroy's profoundly medicated Jocasta, wife and mother of Oedipus, walks the plank with a supermodel's grim determination, but Oedipus merely faints. It falls to Antigone to tell us how Oedipus blinds himself and goes into exile while blood produced by the apparatus drips down on her father. (We don't even get the pleasure of seeing the machine actively ruining him, but are merely told what happens. Where was this brevity earlier?)

And then Antigone somberly places that shoe-stretcher in Oedipus' hand, her family tree solved at last, and almost saves the show. If only there were more of this kind of simple, effective storytelling here.

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