Hard Times Befall Greek King, Eye Gouging Ensues

"What next! You'd think I was cursed or something": Peter Macon as Oedipus and Sandra Shipley as Tiresias in the Guthrie's refashioned take on Sophocles' tragedy
T. Charles Erickson

The last time Peter Macon and Stephen Yoakam squared off on a Twin Cities stage, it was as a mental patient and his shrink in last summer's Blue/Orange at the Guthrie Lab. In a crucial scene in that Joe Penhall play, the two stayed up late into the night discussing the nature of sanity, with Yoakam's doctor displaying that, by some measures, he was nuttier than Macon's troubled character. The key, in any case, was how these gifted actors captured the interpersonal politics transpiring between two very clever characters with quite unequal footings of power.

Now Macon has returned from New York to play Oedipus, in a tragedy that hinges on his tearing apart of Yoakam's Creon in a mad fit of paranoid spite after receiving the bad news from seer Tiresias (Sandra Shipley) that he, the king, has committed the act of patricide that has brought down a plague on the citizens of his kingdom. Macon's depiction of the ruler's moral and mental downfall is nothing short of remarkable, and stands as one of many highlights in this entirely compelling and profound adaptation.

Writer Ellen McLaughlin, in addition to modernizing and streamlining some of the dialogue, has added choral passages of bleak poetry that universalize the Oedipus myth; where Sophocles' verses meditate on the ruinous fate of a particular monarch, McLaughlin ponders heavily on the empty end that awaits all living things. The effect, chiefly brought about through the surefooted, six-person Chorus of Citizens, manages to extrapolate meaning from the original text in a way that feels seamlessly aligned rather than awkwardly juxtaposed. When the Chorus asks, "Is there nothing here that will not die?" each audience member becomes tethered to the onstage action, and the very public role of classical drama has reasserted itself across the ages.

The staging is sleek and quite minimal in comparison with recent Guthrie productions. The action takes place on a circle of what appears to be black marble, with an elegant backdrop that shifts with changes in lighting. David Zinn's costume design is nicely evocative, with the Chorus dressed in contemporary anonymity and the main players sporting a stylized union between the modern and ancient. Macon, in the latter half of the show, sports an otherworldly, shining silver dress-suit/sarong combo that a prime-period David Bowie would not have eschewed.

Opening night last Friday was marked by a snowstorm and the show started 20 minutes late. Any anticipated loss of momentum, however, was countered by a noticeable confidence and energy onstage. The cast of director Lisa Peterson's show seems to know that they've nailed their task, and the well-choreographed Chorus ably grounds the drama and gives Macon a worthy presence against which to establish his utterly believable take on regal worthiness, superiority, and, eventually, rash hubris.

An e-mail exchange with a friend about this play yielded the insight that it tells the same story as the Mickey Rourke flameout Angel Heart (yeah, I know, but this was from a classics professor). There's a worthy insight behind that cultural shiver: Oedipus, at its core, is a detective story in which the criminal and investigator are one and the same. Macon captures this paradox, conveying that the same guy who solves the riddle of the Sphinx will surely get his man, and he brings forth increasing desperation and hot-rails-to-hell abandon in the series of three interrogation scenes that Oedipus conducts.

Which brings us back to Macon's confrontation with Yoakam. It's a happy circumstance that we've seen this pair go at each other in such excellent dramas within the space of a year. In Oedipus we have the two pacing and stalking the stage. Macon's king seethes with caustic sarcasm, while Yoakam's Creon is panicky, unbelieving, utterly dumbfounded that his brother-in-law doubts his good nature. Once Jocasta (Isabell Monk O'Connor, a Guthrie veteran who lends a believable complexity to her interaction with Macon, in a role about as complicated as can be) emerges to learn of her husband's wrath, there's a sense that things have indeed gone all wrong. And in this sophisticated and entirely successful production, that means things have gone all right.

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