Throughout the 1960's, the Polish theatre artist Jerzy Grotowski introduced a radical new vision for theatrical performance in which stylistic movement and gesture, music, dance and text combined in dramatically poetic ways to create a highly metaphoric and deeply spiritual theatrical experience. Hugely influential, he also spawned a great number of poseurs: pretentious, half-realized, artsy-fartsy travesties of classic literature. Akropolis Performance Lab is no such thing.
This powerful and fully realized production of Seneca's "Oedipus", in the poet Ted Hughes' muscled translation, achieves depth and transcendence, literary clarity and theatrical invention, striking immediacy and timeless consequence. Director Joseph Lavy (who also plays Oedipus) guides his company with a firm hand, and as a result the vocal delivery of every actor is precise and coherent, the music is evocative and touching, and the range of the story is both grand and profoundly personal. To say the production is done on a bare stage is both accurate and misleading. The stage, with two straight-backed chairs, is filled with pure performance, the creation of an imaginary world through suggestive objects, movement, sound and music, internal and external emotional and spiritual expression.
Hughes' translation of Seneca's text, with the bloody physicality of Roman tragedy, as opposed to the religious elegance of Sophocles' Greek original, gives Oedipus' tragic pursuit of self-knowledge a very physical pain, and the plague upon Thebes a wrenching human body of traumatized nerve-endings and corporeal suffering. In the same way, the play's opening scene, with the dimly-lit carnality of Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, joined in a damned and ravenous sexuality, uses his nudity to suggest both the vulnerability of his spirit and the humanity of his desire, while Jocasta remains draped in a thin sheath of both ignorance and invaded eroticism.
In the Seattle press there has been a silly, tabloid controversy surrounding the poster for this production, which shows the back of a naked man at a semi-exposed woman's breast. Nudity is important in this production, but only in the same ways and for the same reasons as a great many other theatrical choices. It is always dramatically justified and mostly effective. Only an extended scene with Creon (strongly played by Andrew Loviska) maintains the nudity for too long, and it seemed to me that Jocasta (Holly Flowers) should have exposed her flesh at the moment of her death, rather than pouring her blood on a silk slip. Most importantly, though, the nudity is never titillating or gratuitous. It is always about the external bodies of internal realities, the suffering flesh of tormented spirits.
Far more important theatrically is Jennifer Lavy's use of a variety of Eastern-European musical styles to set Latin texts from the Carmina Burana. In place of the traditional chorus, this haunting and beautifully sung music brings ceremony and solemnity to the action, the religious "fear and pity" of tragedy. At times the instruments are used only as accent, at other times to provoke the circumstances, still again as a form of prayer, supplication to gods too immediate and too removed.
Similarly, the production uses a variety of objects and inventions to give imaginative reality to the story. There is the dance of Oedipus with an iron-spoked wheel, an image of the great wheel of fortune. There is his engagement with a hook on a beam, trying to hold fast with his cane to a heaven he cannot attain, or the application of blood from a small vial to represent tearing out his eyes. Tiresias (Margaretta Lantz) is shown to us in all his broken age with nothing more than the crouch beneath a blanket.
The production is filled with imagination and confident expression, all predicated on the power of theatrical immediacy, the confluence of audience and actor in the moment of live performance. The company is talented, balanced, disciplined and passionate, the artistry mature and substantial.
I thought this production was thrilling, admirable and utterly engaging. There was nothing stuffy or pedantic about this ancient classic, and the combination of a beautiful translation of a truly great story with inventive, committed performers made this one of the best shows I've seen in months. Bravo to Akropolis Performance Lab.