Saturday, July 31, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 263, A Review: "Oedipus Rex" (Legacy Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Written by Sophocles and first performed around 430 B.C., "Oedipus Rex" has a hero with a complicated past, an ending that isn't very happy and plenty of riddles, prophecies, secrets, conflicts and revelations that eventually lead to the title character's catastrophic downfall.
Its telling also touches upon topics of lust, incest, suffering and doom as Oedipus himself realizes he has killed his birthright father and married and bedded his mother who, when he was first born, cast him out to be killed and buried in the mountains.
But wait, there's more.
This being a Greek tragedy hellbent on plague and destruction, Oedipus, we learn, was adopted and saved as an infant and now, grown up as a leader-in-life, hopes to avoid a prophecy of pain and constituent destruction from which there is no escape.
With the groundwork laid, Sophocles constructs an urgent tale of moving credibility and decay that today, resonates with the epic sweep, dimension and tragedy he fought so hard to preserve.

The twisted part of the Oedipus tale and all that comes before it and after is the driving force of Legacy Theatre's brilliant, inventive staging of this ancient drama, its language, its characters, it suspense, its extreme irony and its informational perspective.


This interpretation, translated by Ian Johnston, magnificently reinforces the classic definition of Greek tragedy, its mocking lilt, its cries of suffering and horror, its grave circularity, its prophetic amplification, its condemned truths and its overt heartlessness.

As director, Keely Baisden Knudsen makes this "Oedipus Rex" breathe and resonate. In an effort to appeal to today's audience, she wisely abandons the play's original Greek tragedy requirements - a bare stage; full specifically-crafted period masks worn by both actors and chorus; elaborate, stylized staging and movements; synchronized choral groupings - in favor of a more grounded, modernistic piece that cries 21st century despite its lush, creative period surroundings, lighting, visual effects and costuming smartly designed by Jamie Burnett (sets and lighting), Katya Vetrov (costumes) and Lauren Salatto-Rosenay (projection designer). It's a concept that works surprisingly well while at the same time, adheres to the logistics and format of the original work.

Staging the play, Knudsen dances to her own imaginative heartbeat. She has a story to tell and tell it she does. As "Oedipus Rex" evolves, she brings a natural theatricality to the piece offset by creative elements that accurately reflect the complicated layers of the Sophoclean plot, its cultural landscape, its weighty tension, its curious imprisonment, its surprising depth and its jolting foreboding and fears. She knows what she wants, how to take a breath or pause, how to seize the moment, how to play or underplay a scene or situation, how to challenge both her cast and audience and finally, how to dive in for the kill, shock and entice, run wild and when its all over, leave you begging for more.
As tradition dictates, she accurately portrays the play's abuse of power, its obsession with the conflicts between genders, its tremendous sense of helplessness caused by plague and how the unpredictability of life itself can threaten one's status in a single moment. An auteur of sorts, she also adheres to the Greek tragedy blueprint of having no violence on stage and if a character is to die, the actual death happens off stage or is heard behind closed doors. At the same time, she allows her staging of "Oedipus Rex" to retain its Sophoclean origins and speak directly and authoritatively to the modern audience. 

"Oedipus Rex" stars Mitchel Kawash as Oedipus, Mariah Sage as Jocasta, Michael Sayers as Teiresias, Tom Schwans as Creon, Tyrell Latouche as Priest/Chorus, Jessica Breda as Second Messenger/Chorus, Emmett Cassidy as Servant/Chorus Leader, F. Liam Devlin as Chorus, Barbara Hentschel as Chorus and Michael Steinman as Chorus/ Jr. Apprentice.

As Oedipus, Kawash uncovers his character's story with truth, insight, drive and accomplishment, bringing the right style, tone and scope to the actual story, the dialogue and its metaphorical blindness. Looking very much like a youngish Anthony Rapp from Broadway's 1996 production of "Rent," the actor executes his characterization with a modernistic command and pride that naturally darkens once he gauges his eyes out (there is no blood, but the staging itself involving long red cloths that drape the stairs of the outside court is a stroke of genius on Knudsen's part) after the terrible truths of his life - past and present - are explicitly exposed near the play's end. In the role of Jocasta, Sage is a terrific choice to play the part of a mother who unknowingly marries her son, then commits suicide as the only way to escape this terrible tragedy. It's a part she invests with clarity, dignity and dutiful coherence. Her recitation of the play's glorious language is also rife with imagination and beauty. It's the performance of the season and one that often leaves you breathless.  

The supporting cast which includes fine performances by Sayers, Breda, Hentschel and Schwans, heightens the play's excitement, curiosity, terror, myth and untimely doom. Everyone is perfectly in sync with the storytelling set forth before them, its style, its language and its prophetic urgency and madness. 

A shrewd piece of theatre combining both heroic and brutal commentary, "Oedipus Rex" is an absorbing Greek tragedy staged with eloquence and sharpness befitting its shrewd Sophoclean scope. It is an impressive feat for the newly opened Legacy Theatre and one that should be seen not missed. The cast, under Keely Baisden Knudsen's swift, insightful direction, domesticates the blood-splattered motivation and mindset of the play and keeps it moving deftly toward its justified, horrific conclusion. For over 90 minutes, one sits there completely riveted by dialogue, situations and performances that are not only unique, but cannot be ignored.

Photos courtesy of Jamie Burnett

"Oedipus Rex" is being staged at the Legacy Theatre (128 Thimble Island Rd., Stony Creek, CT.), now through August 22.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 315-1901.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 262, A Review: "Tiny House" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

Ten minutes into Michael Gotch's crafty "Tiny House," it's easy to understand why Mark Lamos, Artistic Director of Westport Country Playhouse, wanted to stage it as part of the theater's virtual 90th season.

It's funny.
It's quirky.
It's maddening.
It's entertaining.
It's fiendishly clever.

It's also decidedly different from the usual overplayed outdoor/indoor summer fare that's continually stuffed down our throats including one too many productions of "Barefoot in the Park," "Godspell," "Mamma Mia!" "The Sound of Music" and "Run For Your Wife."

Not the case in Westport.
And therein, lies its enjoyment.

You don't have to bring your own lawn chairs. You don't have to pay for parking. You don't have to bring your own toilet paper. Instead, you can watch it from your own home. You can pop your own popcorn. Grill your own hot dogs and hamburgers. Or simply break out a platter of sushi, chicken wings, sandwiches, cheeses and nachos paired with your favorite bottle of wine. It's that simple.

That said, "Tiny House" is a wild and wacky roller-coaster ride orchestrated to pure frothy perfection and hysteria by Lamos as it grapples with personal, social and environmental issues that are bold, disturbing, confrontational and surprising. It's a fun ride that merges effortlessly into a sea of comic quirkiness that's impossible to resist. Moreover, it respects the rhythm and heartbeat of Gotch's playscript and his choice of warped and playful theatrics that muse and delight with giggly quality and ripe conviction.

The play, set on the Fourth of July in a minimalistic designed house deep in the woods, delves quickly into a family celebration chockful of mindful exposition, dynamics and conversation. This so-called gathering of sorts is populated by seven colorful and intriguing characters reminiscent of those quirky individuals found in plays by Christopher Durang. They are an outdoorsy architect and his wife; her overly opinioned mother; two hippie neighbors obsessed with medieval costuming and all things Renaissance; a modern-day survivalist who hunts and kills marmots; and a high school biology teacher whose life is fully enriched by nature and its woodsy environment.

Gotch, as playwright, displays a certain kind of uniqueness that keeps "Tiny House" fresh and exciting. He has plenty of ideas, thoughts and narrative routes that give the play both its power and exhilaration. He also delights in catching his audience off guard or simply surprising them with facts, secrets and revelations they never saw coming. As the play evolves over its fast-paced 105-minute running time, he creates an unabashed environment of collective curiosity, wit and identification that never falters for a moment. That, coupled with particular detail, context and language done right gives the piece its additional weight, humor and creative chutzpah.

Staging "Tiny House," Lamos clearly has the right mindset to bring Gotch's Fourth of July comedy to life. From scene to scene and act to act, he is focused, creative and conscious of the play's quirkiness and off-angle intellect. Pacing is everything here and Lamos keeps things continually in motion without missing a beat. He knows how to get a laugh by using just the right amount of comic build-up. He knows each character upside down, left, right and center. He knows when and how to shake you up, catch you off guard or kick you in the ass. And finally, he gives the production a force and pulse that keeps it on track, driven by the performances, dialogue and an emotional amplitude that conveys the humor and deftness of the playwright himself.

Rounding out the cast are Elizabeth Heflin as Billie, Sara Bues as Sam, Denver Milord as Nick, Lee E. Ernst as Larry, Stephen Pelinski as Win, Kathleen Pirkl-Tague as Carol and Hassan El-Amin as Bernard. All seven are exactly right for the characters they are asked to portray, each communicating the ticks, quirks and polemics that become the emotional center of their individual characterizations. They are crafty. They are funny. They are eccentric. They are unique. They are different. They are full of surprise. Their connection to "Tiny House" is immediate and significant, infused with endlessly funny and upbeat accomplishment that makes us laugh in all the right places.

"Tiny House" is a wickedly funny piece of theatre that finds humor in the unlikeliest of situations. It is rife with color, passion and craziness that is both hilarious and soul-soaring. Goth's inspiration and well-crafted dialogue captures the chaos of it all. The cast of seven communicates the play's wit and piping-hot nuttiness with great style and coherence. And Lamos, back in the director's chair, crafts yet another memorable theatre piece that unfolds with just the right amount of clarity, effort and opportunity.

"Tiny House," presented by Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court, Westport, CT) is being streamed online, now through July 18, 2021. Tickets are $25. For more information, call (203) 227- 4177.