REVIEW: AU’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ in No Tragedy. It’s Transcendent!

It’s intimate but grandiose in scope; crisp and polished in every way.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

I just dig a Greek Chorus! Especially one like the groovy gaggle in Anderson University’s spring finale “Oedipus Rex.”

Shroud in Jessica Snyder’s fancy earth tone rags and natural fibers and Cayla Gunter’s wicked hairstyling and make-up that evoke Ziggy Stardust, “Mad Max” and Julie Taymor’s “Titus,” this dozen-member citizenry in Thebes is racked by pestilence and poverty, and, as both a unified body and individually, are the entertaining voice of morality in this stylized Greek tragedy under Director Robert Homer-Drummond.

It’s intimate but grandiose in scope, and crisp and polished in every way from the highly-imaginative body art (henna and head tattoos) and Josef Wehunt’s unsettling original score of pan flute riffs, piano melodies and otherworldly musings by sirens, down to the one-of-a-kind ceramic plates and wine cups created by Professor Chotsani Dean.

While other colleges are mounting Shakespeare (“Romeo and Juliet” at Furman, “The Tempest” at Wofford, “Macbeth” at North Greenville and recently “The Merchant of Venice” at Bob Jones), “Godspell” (Converse and Spartanburg Methodist), or fresh outings like “Peter and the Starcatcher” at Limestone and “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” at USC Upstate, Anderson University boldly goes where few theatres dare: the dawn of drama.

The Greeks invented theatre and this tragedy by Sophocles pre-dates the Bard by some 2,000 years. Though as Homer-Drummond (whose name alone should requisite him as an expert in Greek mythology) writes in his program notes, “Oedipus Rex” is one of those works many people may have read at some point in high school or college, but likely have never experienced as a live production.

I have not seen a Greek tragedy myself since fawning over Greek actress Olympia Dukakis in “Hecuba” in San Francisco nearly two decades ago. And the last Greek Chorus I remember was in Woody’s Allen’s zany comedic chorale in “Mighty Aphrodite.”

This very modern translation by Ian Johnston may eschew the stodgier language to accommodate young hipster patrons, but the story remains the same: an oracle’s prophesy condemns a dysfunctional family to murder and incest….oh and self-induced blindness.

John Leggett is our hero Oedipus who, in a previous myth, solved the riddle of the Sphinx and has heralded that fame all the way to the throne in Thebes. Draped in a gold tunic, Mt. Olympus Salon-worthy eyebrows and perfectly-coiffed hair streaked with matching gold glitter, Leggett is the spitting image of Errol Flynn. Well, without the glitter maybe.

This is a huge part on par with Hamlet and Richard III and Leggett is probably on stage two-thirds of the play. He astutely aced every one of his half-dozen or so major speeches on opening night with strength and passion and effectively made, in tall order, an enthralling appeal for vengeance, guilt, love, shame and ultimately, empathy, as he battles a self-fulfilled prophesy.

Also implicit in the palace intrigue is his wife Jocasta (Taylor Busch in fine dramatic form and wearing an exquisitely-accessorized silvery number) Queen to the previous ruler, King Laius, who was killed by thieves at a crossroads some years before; and her brother Creon, played admirably by Chandler Pennington.

Oedipus and Jocasta may rule their city but they are not gods and can’t defy fate, particularly when directed by the local seer: busy actor Drew Kenyon is the blind prophet in this story. And his tenacious Teiresias is kooky, cryptic, blind is bona fide show-stealer. He IS an elderly, blind and extremely cantankerous truth-teller. But he is also the local smart ass and accepts no insolence from the King. Kenyon somehow got saddled with the only humorous lines in the script and he wastes none of them in this featured role.

Of course, that’s not counting Jocasta’s serious (but ever so hilarious) admission that many men sleep with their mother. The audience just wasn’t sure what to do with that one.

This production also includes a terrific third act showing by Josh Barnes as a crippled old shepherd. I had the pleasure of seeing him in February in the Market Theatre’s “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof.” His stage time is brief here but he clearly shows his acting chops and full-throttle commitment to a character.

Jenna Thiel should be commended for her work here as assistant director, who spearheaded the choreography and directed the magnificent chorus.

Rounding out the cast are Wade Lawrence Holloman, Michael Lewis, Nick Holland, Autumn Gorham, Becca Bennett, Kaitlyn Fuller, Adam Hobbs, Tyler White, Megan Rosener, Lauren Renner, Savannah Thompson, Cami Waters, Jack Arbuckle, James Hall, Thomas Costello, Ian Coulter, Steven Hernandez, Jake Owens and Ashley Bingham.

The city of Thebes is recreated by Ann Cadaret in an unorthodox Greek stucco  palette with bustling columns and topped with an impressive  1950s South Beach/Hanging Gardens of Babylon motif replete with twin working lion-head fountains.

Also on the design team are Cara Wood on lighting; Dalton Cole as Technical Director; Kennedi Traynor as stage manager, Cory Simmons as props master, as well as entire teams of wardrobe and make-up artists and set builders.

“Oedipus Rex” is basically a morality play and Sophocles doesn’t beat around the proverbial bush here: hubris and god-envy are bad; don’t have sex with your mother; and avoid road rage at all Greek crossroads. Check this one out!

“Oedipus Rex” continues Thursday-Saturday, April 6-8 at the Belk Theatre at Anderson University, 316 Boulevard in Anderson. Call the Box Office at (864) 231-2080 or visit http://www.andersonuniversity.edu/school-of-the-arts/theatre.

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