‘Oedipus Rex’ Review — Court Theatre Shines LED-bright Light on Sophocles’ Classic Tragedy

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Confession: As a student of comparative literature at the University of Chicago, I couldn’t dive deep enough into a text to reach the bottom, nor was that my goal. My aim was to examine the ideas that swam before me as I made that dive. And perhaps no other text provides a deeper dive than Sophocles’ fifth century B.C. tragedy, Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King). Brimming with paradox and yet stripped to the bone, a one-day Aristotelian sprint, Oedipus Rex poses questions that provoke endless discussion. Are our fates sealed? How much agency can humans — as opposed to gods — exercise?

Aeriel Williams, Kelvin Roston, Jr., Timothy Edward Kane

Fitting, then, that I should return to the University of Chicago, home to Court Theatre, to see a new production of Oedipus Rex, part of a trilogy that will include Sophocles’ The Gospel at Colonus in spring 2020 and Antigone in fall 2020. Scripted from a crisp translation by the late Nicholas Rudall, founding artistic director of Court Theatre, this Oedipus is all about crispness, from John Culbert’s artic-white scenic design to Keith Parham’s stark lighting to the angular choreography that propels the cast across the stage.

Kelvin Roston, Jr. & Christopher Donahue

Director Charles Newell, the Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director of Court, hones the play’s edges further, breaking through the fourth wall to send the actors into the audience, most notably at the opening of the play, when the performers individually connect with theatergoers, the actors’ syncopated murmurs of “welcome” creating an eerie soundtrack for the action. With the house lights on at full throttle, no one is spared from the unsettling glare.

Cast of Oedipus Rex

Eleven of the performers comprise the chorus, some doing double duty as the blind prophet Teiresias (Christopher Donahue), Antigone (Aeriel Williams, who will continue her part throughout the trilogy), and other roles. They are barefoot and clad in white (striking costume design by Jacqueline Firkins), in sharp contrast to purple-robed Oedipus (Kelvin Roston, Jr., recently seen at Court in August Wilson’s King Hedley II — a very different kind of king), whose royal robes bleed purple after he solves the mystery at the heart of the play.

Kelvin Roston, Jr. & Kate Collins

Central to the play are the roles of Jocasta (Kate Collins), Oedipus’ wife and — go, Freud! — his mother, and Creon (Timothy Edward Kane), Jocasta’s brother and thus Oedipus’s brother-in-law/uncle. The restraint that Kane exerts in this, and in every role in which I have seen him appear, is a model for how actors can best perform this challenging material. When the subjects are murder and incest, fate and free will, chewing the scenery would be counterproductive. Kane excels with self-command. Lucky for theatergoers that his role will continue throughout the trilogy.

Two things stand out about this production. One is how soundly Rudall’s translation resonates with 21st century sensibilities and politics. When Teiresias proclaims “It’s a miserable thing to be wise when wisdom brings no reward,” the entire audience groans in recognition.

That uniform audience response mirrors the production’s other great strength: the chorus expresses itself best through movement, grabbing the audience’s attention in a more primal way than words alone could evoke.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Oedipus Rex

Through December 8, 2019

Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago — adjacent parking garage free during evening performances

Tickets $37.50–$84 at (773) 753-4472 or Court Theatre

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