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Children of Oedipus

The Dynamics of Proximity

By Sophocles and Aeschylus
Dead Playwrights Repertory, Haddonfield Friends Meeting House, Haddonfield, N.J.
Saturday, October 12, 2013, in left quadrant of playing space
Directed by Douglas Overtoom

Many theaters remove the fourth wall and spill out into the audience. In taking on the highly formulaic format of Greek tragedy in the Dead Playwrights Repertory's production of Children of Oedipus, director Douglas Overtoom dispenses with every wall, real or imagined, and integrates the audience into the play space itself, bringing a new dynamic to a trio of plays that serves as a prequel to William Shakespeare's and John Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Both productions, along with Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, comprise the Dead Playwrights Repertory's current three-play "Blood Is Thicker than Water" repertoire. "Family loyalty is a powerful thing, whether it's family by blood, marriage, or friendship, and when that loyalty is shaken, tragedy inevitably follows," the company explains in lumping the three plays together. However, that concept is not readily apparent in the productions themselves as presented by this community theater group, located in the Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia and playing to a dozen people, mostly friends and family, in the fellowship hall of a Quaker Meeting Hall.

At least Children of Oedipus shares thematic and plot lines with The Two Noble Kinsmen. It is really three plays presented as one three-part play: Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus, Aeschylus's Seven against Thebes, and Sophocles's Antigone. Combined, they tell the story of Oedipus's children, daughters Antigone and Ismene and sons Polyneices and Eteocles, following Oedipus's banishment from Thebes and the battle over that city that leaves the two sons dead and Creon in control. He orders that Polyneices's body be left to rot in the field outside the city, an order Antigone disobeys, leading to her own death. This story sets up Theseus's invasion of Thebes at the beginning of the Shakespeare-Fletcher play, and Seven against Thebes introduces us to the two noble kinsmen themselves, Arcite and Palamon.

Overtoom also directs Kinsmen, but other than using the same actors to play Arcite, Palamon, and Theseus, he takes totally different approaches to the two plays, most notably in the arrangement of the stage. With Kinsmen, the audience sits on the outskirts of the play space; for Children of Oedipus, the audience sits in pairs of chairs—some facing opposite directions—arranged across the playing space. At one end is a standard proscenium arch stage with curtain; at the other end, a six-sided diamond-shaped, angled thrust stage. On either side are pedestals. The chorus and some of the characters pose like statues, some on the pedestals, others on the floor, and other characters position themselves on the stages at either end. But most of the action—if action is what you would call the key characters reciting long speeches—comes in the middle, with us. As Creon (James Moore) or Polyneices (Eric Kish) speak, they stroll among the audience, talking directly to each of us, even clasping some of us on the shoulders. Kish as Polyneices is carried on stage as a dead body on a stretcher at the end of Seven against Thebes and remains lying there at our feet through the intermission and on to the end of Antigone.

It's a dynamic with great potential, especially for Greek tragedies, as it so directly engages us in what can otherwise be such a static presentation. The primary drawback for audiences so used to traditional etiquette and sitting in seats facing the action is that they are afraid to turn around to watch what is happening behind them. One woman stared straight ahead even as the blind Oedipus (Drew Biehl) played out his emotional scenes with Antigone (Dina Komuves) and Ismene (Dana Haberern) behind her. Another thing for directors to consider when using this kind of staging is the quality of the costumes; Dead Playwrights Repertory has no budget to speak of, so we could clearly see that the arm guards the Greek soldiers were wearing were made of cardboard.

It also meant that those of us who were exhausted from a long day of working, walking, and sitting through plays are too afraid to close our eyes for even a second in case we drifted off into snoozeland. Three hours is a long time to endure Greek tragedy, especially when the chorus of women in Seven against Thebes carries on and on ad nauseam in an incessant rhythmic cadence that becomes as grating as old windshield wipers struggling against freezing rain during an all-night drive.

With only six rehearsals and long passages to recite in unison, the members of the chorus in all three plays read from scripts. These scripts, though, are elongated spiral notebooks, so they resemble television reporters speaking off their notes. Effective. Meanwhile, Biehl had a notebook as his cheat sheet that he could peer at under the bandages over his eyes. Acceptable. The other key characters are left to their own memories and individual oratorical abilities. Exceptional.

Moore as Creon in the two Sophocles plays and the Spy in Seven against Thebes is creepy and commanding in combination, his character's tyranny almost obscured by the quality of sincerity in his oratory. Kish brings heartfelt passion to the two brothers, Polyneices in Oedipus at Colonus and Eteocles in Seven against Thebes. In all three plays, Komuves is both proud and compassionate as Antigone while Haberern presents a frail Ismene. Eric Mills, in contrast to the confounded Theseus he plays in Two Noble Kinsmen, is a commanding Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus, even when he isn't speaking; and when he is speaking, his line readings have that in them we fain would follow: authority.

And we were right there with him: physically as well as emotionally.

Eric Minton
October 18, 2013

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